Tag Archives: VOST

Response to Big Windy Complex Fire Demonstrates Public Information Coordination

Post by: Kim Stephens

The recent National Capital Region (NCR) Social Media and Emergency Management Summit brought together Public Information Officers from across the metropolitan Washington DC geographic region.  One of the topics of conversation, and objectives of the event, was to determine how to have an effective/visible joint information system in an area that includes not only many large municipalities, but also many different layers of government, including Federal entities. The NCR summit attendees are part of the regional Emergency Support Function #15, which is designed to “provide accurate, coordinated, timely, and accessible information to affected audiences, including governments, media, the private sector, and the local populace, including children, those with disabilities and others with access and functional needs, and individuals with limited English proficiency.”

fire“Coordinated” is the key word in that definition, but a description of what should happen and what actually occurs are often two vastly different things. There is, however, a great example of what a well-coordinated ESF #15 effort can look like: the external affairs effort around the  “Big Windy Complex” forest fires in Oregon. How are they doing it?

1. Social Presence is not branded with any particular agency.

The external affairs teams providing and updating information about the Big Windy Complex Fire seem to be operating under the mantra “It’s not about us.” Instead of branding information with a particular Incident Management Team, local emergency management or law enforcement agency, or even the Virtual Operations Support Team that’s assisting with this effort, the name of the fire gets top billing. By branding the fire under an event-name versus an organization’s name members of the ESF #15 team can post consistently across the life-span of the fire. The public doesn’t care WHO is posting, they care WHAT is posted.

bigwindy

Branding the event is also huge in terms of how citizens search for content. For those of you in this business it might seem natural to look to the Type I Incident Management Team’s Facebook page–of course–who wouldn’t look there? It might even seem self-evident to look at the Bureau of Land Management’s social site or webpage; but for the general public, they honestly have no idea who these entities are or what they are responsible for. The public might have heard the name of the fire, or they might just know the location–and that’s what is going in the “Google machine.”

2.  Cooperation is visible.

cooperatorsThe Big Windy Complex blog site mimics the Inciweb standard of listing all “cooperators” on the fire response and recovery effort. The cooperators include local and state entities, as well as Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service. These agencies are hyperlinked along with “Other Useful Links” such as the “Oregon Smoke Information” site. This is a very visible demonstration of cooperation that  implies content endorsement. I think it is key to gaining trust from the public–they might not know anyone who works for the USDA, but they probably know their local Sheriff.

3. Social Is Integrated, Standards are Followed

All of the social sites branded with the Big Windy Complex Fire also illustrate how standard practices are put into place and followed by the entire public information team (no matter which agency or entity is posting).  The standards are visible and can be illustrated by this Facebook entry:

‪#‎BigWindy‬ Complex: 8/17/2013 – Air Quality Summary Report - http://bit.ly/16WHDzI ‪#‎ORFire‬ ^MARH
This information also available on Inciweb:http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/article/3570/20339/

This entry  demonstrates the following conventions:

  • All relevant hashtags are included;
  • Date and times are posted–when appropriate;
  • The person who provided the update is listed (^MARH)–this helps with accountability;
  • Links to official sources-such as Inciweb, are included;
  • The blog site is used as a secondary incident hub (Inciweb is the primary) and is linked to in each social post;
  • Although no questions were posted to this particular entry, it is also apparent from perusing the Facebook page that questions from the public are answered in a timely manner.

Does the Public Respond Favorably?

Although some emergency management work is thankless, social media provides the opportunity for the public to show their gratitude.  It is not uncommon after an event to receive an outpouring of public appreciation, and that is true for the Big Windy Complex event as well. The comment below was posted to the Facebook page and demonstrates that they are clearly reaching the target audience.

I just want to say thank you for this page and all the updates that have been provided. Never once in a million years did I think I would follow Twitter updates and a Facebook page for a wildfire. This is the first first fire my son has ever been on, and although those first several days I was a nervous mom, I can say the updates continually calmed my nerves. The updates are very telling of the management overseeing the fire; the concern for safety, and the desire to communicate to those who are impacted by this fire, whether near or far, directly or indirectly. Thank you, it is very much appreciated.

I agree! Thank you to the folks working on the Big Windy Complex fire for providing such as great case study. Go #VOSTies!

#SMEM Challenge for 2013: Strategically Monitoring Social Media

Post by: Kim  Stephens

Eye on Flat Panel MonitorOne of the biggest #SMEM challenges for emergency management and public safety organizations is determining whether or not, and increasingly how, they will monitor social media. In the past year we saw a change in mindset: a desire to actively listen versus simply push content to the public. Yet, monitoring can seem like a daunting task.  During large-scale emergency events millions of new posts, pictures and videos  are added to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. every day. How can a small local public health, first response, or emergency management agency sort through all of that? In this post I will outline strategies I have seen employed to effectively deal with this seemingly insurmountable task.

Where do we start?

Numerous questions come to mind when considering monitoring social networks:

  • How ? What software do I need, if any? (And relatedly, how much will that cost?)
  • Who? Who will be doing this work?  Will this only be done when the  EOC is stood up and resources can be shared by all response agencies? or  Will resources be required to monitor social media all the time if we have social accounts?
  •  What is done with the information gleaned from monitoring social media? How is the information shared (if at all) with response partners when there isn’t an EOC or JIC?

Establishing objectives

Each of the questions above are dependent on the objective(s) established by your organization.  The first step is to determine why: Why are we listening? What is the expected outcome? Only then can you  decide what resources you will need, how you will share that information with response partners, and what tools are required.

Your emergency management organization might decide to specify a number of objectives. Some of the more common ones include:

  1.  To determine if the organization’s message is getting across or if conflicting information (rumors) is being conveyed: Are people  confused about what to do (e.g. how long to boil water)?
  2. To determine public sentiment regarding the organization or, during a crisis, about the overall government’s response effort: Are people angry about something that is happening?
  3. To determine the most commonly asked questions and concerns.
  4. To quickly answer direct questions, or questions directed at the community political leadership on topics that involve your organization: Are people asking the Twitter-happy Mayor when debris will be picked up in their neighborhood?
  5. To determine what other organizations are saying, in order to both ensure messages are coordinated, and to amplify mission related content.
  6. To determine the extent of damage and impact of the disaster event. (Advanced)

It should be noted that law enforcement officials might have completely different set of objectives. They might monitor social media to actively look for people (or evidence) from those who have been involved in a crime as well as to enlist their followers in helping them identify suspects. They could also monitor the accounts of a person that has been brought to their attention by members of the community (e.g. a person has been posting strange comments that point to criminal intentions). In this post, however, I will stick to emergency management concepts since that is much more familiar territory for me.

Low Budget Solutions

Of course, part of the strategy for listening or monitoring social media has to include determining who will be responsible for doing these tasks. I recommend you also read the post that describes VOST (Virtual Operations Support Teams) for some ideas on how you can expand your efforts when required. Nonetheless, there are many things that can be done by an organization to make monitoring social media a bit easier, especially if some of it is completed before a crisis.

The following simple steps are based on processes described by emergency managers who have made the most of the free tools at their disposal. Even though these items might seem like obvious courses of action, I have cited them here for a reason.    I have included some basic 101-type info since people often ask these questions.

1. Create Lists and Like Pages of Response Partners: It is important to know and keep track of what other response organizations are saying on social networks, even if (maybe especially if) they are in a neighboring county. If you and your neighbor put out conflicting content, believe me, the public will notice. (This happens in quickly moving events–road closures are a prime example.)

  • On Twitter, set up a list(s) of all “trusted sources” including government agencies, first responders, political leaders,  volunteer organizations and local news media–don’t forget to include federal agencies such as FEMA, EPA and HUD.  Twitter.com explains how to create a list in 4 simple steps.
  • Include social streams of all response partners on your website or Facebook page, so the public can easily find them as well. See a best practice example from Australia: Queensland Police Service Alert, which has the embedded Twitter feeds from their response partners organized by sector: transportation, power and water, etc.
  • On Facebook, “Like” all of these same organizations.

Coordinate Offline: It should be noted that in addition to doing the work online, a good practice is to have every government official responsible for posting to social networks  participate in recurring meetings to talk about strategies and coordination before a disaster event. (How can we ensure information is updated on our social media accounts, simultaneously? How can we share content/intel that we are seeing from the public ?) The speed of social media might require new, or at a minimum, faster coordination processes. 

2. Invest in a smart phone for the person monitoring social media: Smart phones are a great way to monitor your social media presence when you are away from a computer. Both Twitter and Facebook can provide smart phone notifications to the administrator every time the account is mentioned, replied to, re-tweeted, etc. You can also set up a way to receive notifications when other organizations post updates as well.

  • Twitter.com has a great help page on this topic.
  • Facebook has similarly helpful “How-To” page about how to receive push notifications on a mobile device. There is also information here about the Page Manager App that lets admins check on their Page activity, view insights and respond to their audience from their mobile device. This app is only currently available for iPhone and iPad.

3. Read

I once asked the social media manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency how he monitored the agency’s social stream, he simply stated: I read.  Surprisingly, keeping up with what is happening on social media does not necessarily take complicated software, especially if reading is done strategically.   In order to prevent being overwhelmed,  you can limit the content that you look at to some or all of the following:

  •  Read comments and questions directed to your organization. This step is probably the most important: if your organization is actively posting content, more than likely, people will be posting comments and questions…AND they will expect a response.  Reading comments and “@” messages will also allow you to gauge how your efforts are being received.
  • Read what is being posted by your trusted-sources on the list(s) you have created.
  • Read comments and questions posed from the public to your response partners and elected officials.
  • Read information based on keyword searches and hashtags.   This strategy involves searching for key words, such as the name of the event, in order to find pertinent content.
    • During an active event, people often post pictures and video to Twitter (more so than other platforms) and mention the location and /or name of the town. (For specific instructions see Twitter advanced search and the “How-To“).  It is important to note, however, that any early pictures should be treated cautiously. Some folks think it is quite funny to post fake images.
    • Possible search terms: name of agency, name of event, name of municipality.

4. Actively ask for information

There is nothing wrong with asking your followers or the general public for information via your social networks. People often provide valuable situational awareness information to you anyway, for example, posting on your Facebook page: “There are power lines down on Elk Road.” Some organizations have tried to give the public a way to provide information in a more structured way. Good examples of this are the not-so-new USGS’s earthquake detection program  “Did you Feel it?” and the recent Fairfax County Hurricane Sandy Crowdmap that allowed people to post their observations.

Soliciting information is almost the opposite of  “data mining.” Data mining involves  automated computer processes  intended to make sense of or find patterns in vast amounts of content posted to social networks (see this post by Patrick Meier for more info). I suspect that this process will be one of the hottest topics for 2013 as more of these tools (discussed in this previous post)  come online. Nevertheless, if your organization is simply trying to keep up with mentions and comments, then advanced software is probably not necessary…although highly coveted. Coordination and collaboration with your response partners,  however, continue to be some of the best tools in your toolbox.

If you are still reading, let me know if you have established objectives or listening strategies.

Note: A majority of this content came from a post I did for WRHSAC.org.

Top #SMEM Challenges for 2013: I Don’t Have Time!

ESA/ESOC goes Social Media _10

Post by: Kim Stephens

Patrice Cloutier, James Garrow and I have colluded a bit to reflect on SMEM in 2012: James is writing up his top five social media lessons learned during the year; Patrice is taking note of the SMEM great events of 2012 (including disaster events where social media played a pivotal role in providing both situational awareness to first responders as well as vital information to the public); and my self-assigned task is to write about the challenges we face in the year to come. The three of us are equally passionate about  social media, and share the mindset evident in statement from Garrow’s post “Top 5 SMEM Lessons: The Public Uses Social Media”

The public has integrated social media into their lives. The fruits of that integration are demonstrated during every disaster… Ignoring the state of the world is, for an emergency manager, tantamount to malfeasance. Our greatest lesson learned this year is that we can no longer ignore social media or keep it out of our planning.

Nonetheless, I think there is a “but.” Although I agree that emergency managers should no longer ignore social media, there are many challenges that come with getting emergency management professionals proficient with these tools. In this and subsequent posts I will outline some of these challenges and link them to emerging solutions. (I have adapted some of the post below from something I wrote for Western  Regional Homeland Security Council in Massachusetts.)

Challenge #1: “I don’t have time.”

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

Although there are an increasing number of emergency managers swimming in the social media tide, some folks remain firmly on the beach. They might even know how to swim (for instance use Facebook for personal reasons) but are reluctant to jump in wearing their emergency management  suit.  The explanation these professionals often give is that they don’t have time. Although the statement “I don’t have time” could be code for “I don’t think this is important”  it also could mean a multitude other things. For instance, I don’t have time…

  •  to devote to learn the tools;
  •  to devote to developing a meaningful social presence;
  •  to update social networks during a crisis;
  • to answer all of the questions from the public posted to our pages.

These folks also understand that if they build a presence on social media people will come to these sites during an event and expect timely content. This is not a comforting thought. They know that will have set up an expectation for information dissemination that they cannot meet.

Honestly, I completely understand the predicament. Although some organizations have a full-time staff person devoted to social media, most do not. Only bigger cities have a full-time PIO and increasingly, small communities don’t even have a full-time Emergency Manager. Often these part-time EMs are dual hatted, so if they had a couple of hours a week to write and post a few preparedness tips to their Twitter account and Facebook page, during a crisis, they might literally be the same person on the other end of the fire-hose.

Help! Can I Outsource this?

Supplementing staff during a crisis is not new; it is new, however, in terms of social media. The idea of handing over the reigns of these accounts is very difficult concept for some. Who would you trust to be the voice of your organization?  Although this concept  may initially seem like a stretch–I would never allow someone else to be our voice!–there is a perfect example of how outsourcing can work: Incident Management Teams. When an IMT comes into your community you do trust them to do what is required/asked.  However, this arrangement is not without strings attached–a  ”Delegation of Authority” agreement is signed between the two parties detailing expectations. Below is an excerpt from a sample DoA:

You have full authority and responsibility for managing incident operations within the framework of legal statute, current policy, and the broad direction provided in both your verbal and written briefing materials. You are accountable to me. A formal evaluation of your performance will be conducted prior to your departure. This formal evaluation may be followed up within sixty days after your departure once the Agency has had the opportunity to review accountability, claims, financial matters, and other items, which require time to evaluate.

Although IMTs often do include public information officers, it is not realistic to assume that communities will have the opportunity to use an IMT every time there is an incident. But even small, localized events can stretch resources and limit an organization’s ability to “deal” with social media. This is why the concept of a Virtual Operations Support Team is increasingly gaining in popularity. For just a bit of background, repeating content from previous posts, a VOST (a concept developed by Jeff Phillips) can be defined as a team that accomplishes some or all of the following:

  • Establishes a social media presence for an organization that previously did not use social networking tools to communicate with the public;
  • Monitors social media communications;
  • Handles matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers;
  • Follows social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicates issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective;
  • Identifies misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provides a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplifies the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or official social media accounts);
  • Compiles media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Documents social media conversations.

Who serves on the VOST?

Unlike IMTs, VOSTs are not pre-formed, nationally trained teams. One current misperception is that the “VOST”  will swoop into your community after a disaster.  Although there are people who work on VOSTs for specific communities or organizations, those folks have been pre-identified by the community  (I cannot emphasize that enough).

In other words, if you are interested in having a group (or even just one person) ready help with social media after a disaster, you have to take responsibility to foster that relationship and come to a terms of agreement before the disaster. Communities have done this in several different ways (explained in more detail below). Some have turned to CERT members (e.g. Anaheim California’s Office of Emergency Management); others have tapped  savvy social media community members (e.g. Cecil County, Maryland); and still others, including the NYC Public Health Department, have developed a VOST from within their agency by training their own employees–e.g. people willing to add additional duties for the opportunity to do something unique during a disaster response.

Like an IMT, VOST members can supplement resources and potentially even bring in a new set of skills.

VOST Models 

From my perspective, three models have emerged for the use and structure of VOSTs. Interestingly, the model or category an organization falls into seems to be a reflection of the both the level of trust with VOST members as well as the level of trust and knowledge/comfort with social media in general. The models I have identified are

  1. External Support (Amplify and Monitor Only)
  2. Hybrid Support (Amplify, Monitor, and Respond on behalf of the organization, but with specific limits)
  3. Internal/Embedded (Full range of social media duties and support)

1. External VOST Support:

Organizations that are both new to social media and the concept of a “VOST” might consider using support from team members in a more conservative manner. In this model the following support might be provided:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective);
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplify the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or established community VOST social accounts).

Team members could provide this support from afar–in fact, getting this type of assistance from folks outside of your community might be a great option since they would be out of the impacted area and would therefore have power in their home, or office, etc. Remember, monitoring social media does not have to happen in your EOC.

  • But who? Team members could be emergency managers from the other side of the state,  for instance.
  • But how? It is important to note that with any of these models, communication between the team members and the organization is vital for success. For example, if the team identifies a potential issue that needs to be addressed quickly (e.g. people posting angry comments on Mayor’s Facebook page about conditions in the shelters) they need assurance that the customer/organization has seen this red flag.

2. Hybrid Support

In this model, the team does everything identified in the external support model, but also responds to questions from community members and posts content on behalf of the organization.  Unlike the model above, these individuals would be made administrators of those accounts. In this approach, however, there are specific limitations placed on the team members. For instance, they are allowed to post on behalf of the organization, but only information that has already been cleared by their organization’s PIO or posted on other official government accounts.

  • But who? I have seen this model used with CERT volunteers.
  • But how? Similar to the way 311 employees use pre-scripted responses to citizen’s questions, the social media volunteers are provided answers to frequently asked questions that they can type into the Facebook page, or post to the Twitter account. They would be responsible for monitoring these accounts and flagging any out-of-ordinary questions and obtaining quick answers: e.g. Is Elkton Road flooded?

3. Internal/Embedded

In this model, the VOST team leader  is given the full range of social media duties. This model is often utilized by small communities that do not have a full-time (or even part-time PIO) and the Agency’s staff person responsible for social media communication has many other duties during the response to a crisis or disaster.

  • But who? Often this type of arrangement is made with people very familiar with the organization and maybe even retired PIOs. The organization has an established, trusted relationship with the person or team members.
  • But how? In order to provide this type of support, it is often best to have the team, or a least the team leader, embedded at the Emergency Operations Center.

There are many examples of what VOST members have accomplished during the past two years. Click on the links below to see some of the social media pages they have built. Sorry for the extra-long post. I hope you have made it to the end! If you have any questions about this concept please let me know.

http://barrypointorfire.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/barrypoint-orfire-814-morning-briefing-pics-jp/
www.twitter.com/barrypointfire
http://www.facebook.com/BarryPointOrFire

http://longdrawfire.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/photos-from-longdraw-orfire-jp/
https://twitter.com/LongDrawORFire
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Long-Draw-ORFire/123506971124484?ref=hl

http://tablemountainwafire.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/tablemountain-wafire-photo-mop-up-at-table-mountain-fire-st/
https://twitter.com/TableMtnWAFire
http://www.facebook.com/TableMountainWAFire?ref=hl

http://trinityridgefire.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/trinityridge-idfire-public-information-map-nh/
https://twitter.com/TrinityRidgeID
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Trinity-Ridge-IDFire/355697117846919?ref=hl

http://wenatcheecomplexfire.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/wenatcheecomplex-wafire-information-station-photo-marh/https://twitter.com/WenatcheeWAFire
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wenatchee-Complex-WAFire/522867564394287?ref=hl

http://wildlandfires.wordpress.com/rma/
https://twitter.com/#!/WildlandFires
http://www.facebook.com/WildlandFiresinfo?ref=hl

http://nyvost.vosg.us/about/
https://twitter.com/nyvost
http://www.facebook.com/NYVOST?fref=ts

 

Washington Smoke Blogspot: A Truly Collaborative Effort

Post by: Kim Stephens

Smoke from the September 2012 fires in central Washington State continues to cause huge air quality concerns for local residents.  Last week public health officials, according to the Seattle Times,  went so far as to call conditions  “…worse than in the days after Mount St. Helens erupted and the region was coated with ash.”  Not surprisingly, this has manifested in very real public health problems and has led to hospitalizations and school closures.

“We have never had anything like this happen in Chelan or Douglas County and maybe never in the state of Washington,” said Mary Small, public-information officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District. (Source: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2019205184_wenatchee20m.html)

As with any crisis, citizens want to know what is happening and how it impacts them. But in this era of information overload, feast is sometimes more of an issue than famine. This is especially true now that every  locality, State and Federal agency has a website, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, etc.

Of course the Joint Information System is supposed to address this problem. In theory the JIS is designed to “integrate incident information and public affairs into a cohesive organization designed to provide consistent, coordinated, accurate, accessible, timely, and complete information during crisis or incident operations.” But, we all know this doesn’t always happen as seamlessly as the definition implies.

Washington Smoke Blog

The Washington Smoke Information blog, however, provides a great example of what a cohesive information  system can and does look like. According to the USDA’s Forest Service website, the blog combines information from numerous agencies including Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, Washington tribes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service and various Washington county health departments.

“This website [blog] is a big step forward in providing the public with one-stop information that will help them protect their health,” said Deputy Regional Forester Maureen Hyzer. “We recognize that smoke from wildfires is a big concern for the public. This site will help them get information quickly about the air quality where they live.”

VOST

Of course a website or a blog doesn’t coordinate information, people do. One interesting aspect of this blog is that, according to the USDA-FS website, it was put up with the assistance of  “a volunteer web group.” The volunteer-web-group is actually a Virtual Operations Support Team or VOST (see definition in the text box).

The Forest Service has been making use of VOSTs mostly due to the promotion and deployment of the concept by Kris Eriksen, the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Portland Team (a Type I Incident Management team). Ms. Eriksen has utilized VOSTs since 2011 to support social media and digital communications on numerous fires. The effort was documented by researchers during the 2011 Oregon, Shadow Lake Fire (read that document here.)

Who are these volunteers? Participants in this VOST effort include active emergency mangers who work during their off hours, people who have technical skills and an interest in emergency management, and even some regional forest service employees. Most have worked on previous VOST efforts.

Tools for Organization--With each VOST activation Ms. Eriksen and the team make use of Skype chat rooms and Google Docs to coordinate their efforts. Both communication and collaboration tools are seen as vital to the success of any deployment. The skype platform allows information to be relayed from the official organization via Ms. Eriksen to the VOST members in a text format: members can simply read the stream in order to determine what has transpired in previous communications and/or shifts. They also use the tool to discuss issues and receive direction in real-time. (I was given access and permission to read through the chat log.)

The Blog

In order to ensure citizens can quickly find the information they need, the Washington Smoke blog was designed–as stated above–as a one-stop shop. How do the volunteers fit in? It should be emphasized that VOST members are not involved in any of the following: decisions about what is posted; deciding if air quality is good versus hazardous; the wording on a press release or even the titles of the categories on the blog. They are, however, integral to the effort to pull content generated by official sources to the blog and populate the site with links and data from those sources as directed by the team leader.

Google Crisis Response

When citizens link to the blog site the first thing they will see is a prominently placed Google map. This map has multiple layers of data including: air quality–current conditions; air quality–tomorrow’s forecast; schools affected by the smoke; public alerts; Active Fire Perimeters; Inciweb (Incident Information System) fires; US Radar (Precipitation); and Cloud Imagery.

The Google Crisis Response Team worked very closely with Ms. Eriksen and the VOST  on this effort to provide a map that would help meet information needs of the local citizens.   Animation layers were added based on data available through actively participating organizations such as the Washington State Department of Ecology and the US EPA–just to name two. (I understand that getting the data into compatible formats was a little bit of a challenge.)  Although each organization has their own website to provide agency-specific content (see–Air Now a site that has Air quality information displayed on a map) , the Google map is the only place to find layered data: for instance, you can find schools within the hazardous air quality boundary.

Other information available on the site:

  • A map that is hyperlinked to National Weather Service real-time updates (labeled: Watches, Warnings and Advisories–the grey color indicates an air quality alert);
  • Daily updates of air quality from each county with the measures Good, Unhealthy, Moderate, Unhealthy for senstive groups and Hazardous;
  • Daily updates or press releases from any organization involved in the response. Yesterday, for example, there were posts such as:
  • A list of all of the hyperlinks to pertinent agencies, organizations and tools separated by categories including: County, State, Federal, Webcams, and Fire Information (which includes such sites as Inciweb and the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center);
  • FAQs;
  • Other resources;
  • Information in Spanish

According to the site-visit counter the page has received over 25,500 hits. That is a great success. I look forward to the after action report from this effort. I think there will be many great take-aways for other communities and agencies to learn from–for instance, the importance of sharing data in open formats. What do you want to know more about?

New Case Study–Virtual Operations Support Team: Trial by Fire

Post by: Kim Stephens

Image by OregonDOT

Lisa Ann St. Denis, Leysia Palen, and Amanda Hughes all of the University of Colorado’s Project EPIC have recently released a new case study of the use of a Virtual Operations Support Team or (VOST). The VOST was described in this guest post by Scott Reuter, one of the VOST members. The creator of the VOST concept, Jeff Phillips, defines it as an integration of “trusted agents”

…into Emergency Managment operations by creating a virtual team whose focus is to establish and monitor social media communication, manage communication channels with the public, and handle matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as the management of donations or volunteers. In times of need, the support of a VOST can be enlisted to extend communication capacities and provide operational support.”

The study details the actions of the VOST during the Oregon Shadow Lake Fire in 2011 and discusses every aspect of their deployment: the team’s relationship with the requesting agency point of contact (which was the National Incident Management Organization PIO, Kris Eriksen); the tasks assigned to the team; the relationships in and amongst team members; team leadership; the processes and tools used to conduct, record and report their work back to the requestor; and the ability for volunteers to sustain their contributions.

It should be noted that this VOST was not created for the  purposes of responding to the fire. This is a team that was already formed and had worked together in real world instances (although somewhat smaller) on numerous occasions. The team members are also in almost daily contact with each other via social networks, even when they are not asked to work an incident.

This case study is quite timely. Emergency managers have started to realize the vital role social media can play in communicating with citizens in an emergency or disaster. Using social networks to disseminate information is not necessarily a huge stretch for most organizations (although some changes to traditional processes are necessary–such as releasing information more often). However,  the concept of monitoring, and then interacting, with citizens via social media–especially to gain situational awareness or even to gauge sentiment, is still quite unsettling for some. Most of the concerns revolve around simply the human-power required to monitor and aggregate the steady stream of information from the public, only some which is valuable.  Picking the needle of important info from the virtual haystack takes considerable effort.

I won’t rehash the exact nature of their work here–I recommend you take 15 minutes to read the 10 page report, but I do want to explore why they were successful. What stood out to me where five key ingredients that allowed this team to operate remotely–outside the walls of an Emergency Operation Center, and deliver a service that provided tangible support to not only the agency requesting their assistance, but almost more importantly, to the communities impacted by the fire. Five “key ingredients” were apparent (some of which I’ve augmented with my own observations from interacting with this group).

Key Ingredients:

1. Leadership. A virtual team cannot operate without a strong team leader that makes the success of the team his or her mission on an almost daily basis–even when the team is not operational. This is true of Jeff Phillips, not only the person who imagined the concept, but who works tirelessly to make it a reality. The authors of the study suggest that the team leader could be either a volunteer, such as Jeff, or a paid response agency staff member. He also served as the “cheerleader in chief” offering high praise to team members and constantly thanking them and exalting them for their efforts. Although Jeff did not often play the role decision-maker, without one, the team could devolve into disagreements with no way to resolve them.

2. Team building A group of volunteers that will be working towards a common goal need to understand and trust the other members. Team building for this VOST was done by the constant contact mentioned above which created an atmosphere of camaraderie by the members. In addition, membership is limited, which stoked a feeling of belonging as well as a sense of being a part of something bigger than their own individual efforts.

3. A clear mission: The VOST is designed specifically to be activated by, and work directly for, the ground incident/event management on specific tasks. The success demonstrated during the Shadow Lake Fire can be attributed to the team understanding exactly what they needed to accomplish and then given the latitude to complete the tasks at hand.

4. A virtual flagpole: The study mentions the social networking tools the team employed to complete their work during the three weeks they were active. Having a virtual location (in this case it was Skype) to record their work, as well as read what had transpired the shift before, seemed to be absolutely critical. This was especially true since members were geo-graphically dispersed in three different time zones.  Skype kept them all on the same page, both literally and figuratively.

5. Feedback The role of Kris Ericsen can not be underestimated. After requesting the services of the VOST she did not simply walk away. She interacted with the team on a daily basis to coordinate their efforts with her own, as well as to provide the vital information they needed to further their work. Furthermore she displayed trust, for example, by giving them details they couldn’t release to the public until a designated time, as well as gratitude for their efforts throughout the period they were activated.

I would be interested to hear from any organizations that are considering starting a virtual support team of their own. I believe some EMAs are weighing the option of using CERT members in this capacity. If you, or your local EMA falls in this category let me know.

What is a Virtual Operations Support Team?

Guest Post: Scott Reuter

I’m fortunate to be working with a group of #SMEM*  friends who like to help each other during disasters. We train on real disasters as well as live non-disaster events, such as conferences and fast-moving popular events, so that we can test new social media tools and techniques. We do this to learn for our own varied emergency needs, and to share what we learn with others in order to contribute to the development of social media disaster operations in all phases of disasters. We call ourselves the “Virtual Operations Support Team“, or VOST for those who prefer acronyms.**

We are a diverse mix of professional emergency managers and disaster volunteers of varying skill levels with one major thing in common: an enthusiasm for learning how to use social media in disasters, and for developing ways to operate that will make things easier for ourselves and others in future disasters. We like to share what we learn with others.

Here’s a quick definition of the VOST concept:

  • Virtual Operations Support (VOS) as applied to emergency management and disaster recovery is an effort to make use of new communication technologies and social media tools so that a team of trusted agents can lend support via the internet to those on-site who may otherwise be overwhelmed by the volume of data generated during a disaster.
  • VOS Teams (VOST) are activated to perform specific functions in support of affected organizations & jurisdictions. Each VOST has a Team Leader that reports directly to the affected organization/jursidiction.
  • As additional VOSTs are established, a VOS Group (VOSG) may be established to coordinate the work of the VOSTs to maintain an effective span of control. The VOSG has a Group Supervisor that reports to the affected organization/jurisdiction. The VOST Leaders report to the Group Supervisor.

VOST History

While many of us already knew each other and/or had worked other disasters together, we were first assembled  as a group by Jeff Phillips (@losranchosEM 0r @_JSPhillips) as a team of “trusted agents” in March of 2011. The idea is that in a disaster, anyone trying to monitor and respond using social media will be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of data that needs to be examined and sorted into useful information. In a catastrophic disaster this need is only amplified and there will also probably be a need for a predetermined, trusted person or group to search, proritize and forward crisis data from outside of the disaster location if the internet is not functioning or bandwidth is limited, or again, if the on-site personnel are overwhelmed by the amount of crisis data incoming.

Proof of Concept

1. SMEM Camp

SMEM Camp: Our first “proof of concept” effort (from now on I’ll call them instances) was set up in March 2011 by Jeff Phillips to support the “#SMEMCamp” panel at the NEMA Annual Conference.  I won’t spend a lot of time discussing this instance, as Jeff did a great explanation of it here. I will say , however, that in my view it was a great success in demonstrating that a group of volunteers well-versed in SMEM could be of great asistance to each other if they coordinate their efforts, and plan in advance to do so.

2. 140 Conference Northwest

Our next effort was in support of the 140 Conference Northwest, aka #140confNW, which was held in May in Vancouver, Washington. We were led in this instance by Cheryl Bledsoe (@CherylBle) of Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (@CRESA). The VOST members that were on-site worked to live-tweet the conference, communicate problems to the internet audience,  and help answer questions that were being asked via twitter as best we could. Some of our team were also helping from various locations around the country by monitoring the live stream and live tweets of the event, as well as search for relative material available on the internet. For example, if a conference speaker mentioned a website and one the on-site VOST members tweeted the info without a link, the off-site members found the URL, and then retweeted the info with the URL attached. The VOST also tweeted links to other supporting materials.

3. National VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference 

Our third VOST effort was for the social media panels at the National VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in Kansas City, MO.  Once again the team helped to find and share helpful information using twitter and facebook. Short-Term Disaster Recovery expert Bill Driscoll, Jr. of AllHands Volunteers  – now at NECHAMA – joined in the effort, video streaming the morning panel session on U-stream using his iPad. The VOST actually had a chance to help relay info as we were under tornado warning and had to go to the hotel basement to shelter-in place between the morning and afternoon social media panels!   Some VOAD conference attendees that had expressed uncertainty at the morning session saw us using social media to gather data in the basement, and came back to the afternoon session to learn more and get help setting up an account!

4. Hurricane Irene

English: Rainfall totals for Hurricane Irene (...

Image via Wikipedia

The fourth major #VOST instance was Hurricane Irene. While VOST has helped informally on smaller earthquakes, floods, wildfires and misc. smaller disasters, this was the first large instance where we operated as a VOST on a large scale disaster, combining efforts with other individuals and organizations who were assisting on the disaster. We helped to populate maps and lists with contacts and social media accounts for Emergency Managers and disaster authorities in areas that were expected to be affected that were in the projected path of the hurricane. We helped to amplify warnings and vital communications. One of our VOST members was in New York in the path of the Hurricane, and we stayed in contact with her and supported her local social media emergency effort.

5. Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon

The fifth VOST instance was the Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon. Jeff Phillips was contacted by Kris Eriksen of the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) who wanted to test the use of social media as part of informational support during the wildfire response. (there is a paper due out on that particular VOST effort soon, and I’ll get a link up for that as soon as it’s available.) VOST member Pascal Schuback set up the ORfireInfo blog,  I set up twitter & gmail accounts,  a shared dropbox file, a facebook account and a Keepstream social media curation account for saving relevant media articles. We did all of this for in order to keep the NIMO staff informed of what the media and citizens on twitter & Facebook were saying and asking in regards to the fire, and were able to respond to the public.

Jeff Phillips again organized and led the effort, put together the operational ICS204 document in which to seek instructions, log actions in support of the effort, and save useful information and resources where all VOST members could access them. The “#ORfire” Shadow Lake Fire VOST was 19 days of sustained operations working directly with NIMO staff. (I was travelling during this one and was able to test what it would be like to assist in VOST operations while traveling – even posting some fire updates via iPhone while on a crab expedition in Portland, Maine!) This was a long effort and many assisted on it including Jerry KoenigJoel Arnwine, and many others (apologies to all not mentioned – luckily there will be more papers on this VOST instance coming out shortly.)

6. January 2012 northwest floods 

The sixth VOST instance was in support of the January 2012 northwest floods and severe weather that affected Oregon. (Recovery efforts are ongoing.) In this instance, while we operated and shared crisis data during the flood event, the goal was to support not only response phase efforts, but also to assemble information that would support and streamline both short and long-term recovery phases of the disaster. VOST members located social media and conventional contacts for affected counties, started a map for locating hard hit areas as seen in media accounts, started a Storify media curation/archive, and saved useful info and resources so that Oregon VOAD***** could develop a plan for dealing with a multi-county flood recovery effort. (ongoing at the time of this writing.). This really has turned in to two efforts; one was the initial collection of all data by the VOST – and the subsequent attempt to engage ORVOAD members in the use of this collaborative tool for sharing information amongst themselves. One VOST member (@TheRedElm) even helped me with note-taking during a complex ORVOAD conference call with lots of attendees. We both worked on the notes in a collaborative Google doc.

Conclusion

Each of the above VOST instances really needs to have its own unique story told, but I wanted to get this out there before we get too far away from the early efforts to get the discussion started. People on the #SMEM hashtag have been wondering what #VOST is about, so I hope that provides a little of the background.

Applying the VOST concept to a disaster of catastrophic scale is not difficult to imagine. I see myself getting on site to my county EOC after a major earthquake, where I know I will only be able to process so much crisis data by myself or with a couple of helpers. But, if I am able to utilize a VOST  I could contact my trusted agents and ask for help in processing this data. (Some of us are discussing MOUs so that the VOST can self-deploy in case contact is not immediately possible.) Perhaps some people are trapped in their home, unable to make a voice call, but they can get a text message out via twitter, or a text message to someone who then posts it to facebook.  VOST members can search for these cries for help on twitter, and help to sift that data out and pass it on so that I can relay it to those who can help.

FOOTNOTES & LINKS

* We follow each other on twitter and gather on twitter; “#SMEM” is the hashtag for Social Media in Emergency Management – we also hold regular twitter chats on the #SMEMchat hashtag at 12:30EST every Friday – all are welcome!

** you will also occasionally see VOSG being used; this stands for “Virtual Operations Support Group” and is used when an “instance” – or operation – becomes big enough to require more people than can be managed; at that point one or more additional VOS Teams will be created, and the Teams will all be part of a VOSG, Or VOS Group, and will be managed following standard ICS guidelines.

*** I want to mention that I’ve been only been heavily engaged in social media use in disasters for about a year and a half now. That was about the time that I realized (by viewing the Red Cross Crisis Data Summit) how important social media was becoming in all phases of disaster. I’m sure that there are others that need to be acknowledged as innovators and originators in this work, but I’m basing this piece on what I know, so please feel free to fill in the back story in comments. I want to acknowledge both Jeff Phillips, and Heather Blanchard of Crisis Commons as the people that I first heard use the terms Virtual Operations Support” as applied to Emergency Management, and “DOC or digital operations center”.

**** a much more thorough academic study will soon be available on the Shadow Lake Fire “VIOS” (virtual information operations support) instance, and I also hope that others including Jeff Phillips, Cheryl Bledsoe and others will share their views on this and other VOST efforts.

***** ORVOAD is Oregon Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a group of faith-based and community service groups who assist those affected by disasters with long-term recovery.

LINKS to VOST Info & Resources: