Ready or not the public uses Social Media in crisis situations

A Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) ladder tr...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The article “Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service: Emergency Management & Social Media Evangelism” by Latonero, et.al, (May 2010) is an interesting case study about the use of social media in the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).  Brian Humphrey, the long-time PIO of LAFD, was the focus of the study since he has been the tip-of-the-spear with regards to the implementation social media in the response community: see this online interview with him on John Solomon’s blog.  The Latonero article is interesting not only because it discusses some of the advantages new media can provide to a response organization, but also because it presents the numerous challenges created by this type of communications medium.

Biggest advantage: “Bypassing mass media as traditional intermediaries.” The ability to engage the public in near real-time and provide them with another way to receive legitimate information directly from the Department became one of the key motivators for implementing this form of communication.

Biggest challenge: The ability to engage the public in near real-time. One quote  from Mr. Humphrey’s twitter feed illustrates the challenge: “270 voice mails and 2000+ non-spam emails expecting a reply. Dunno how or when I’ll get back to you all.”

This article leads to the question: Why engage the public through social media at all if it creates unreal expectations? One answer is that people are already using social media daily and will use it during crises, whether we like it or not. This article in today’s Washington Post “Twitter breaks story on Discovery Channel gunman James Lee” is a prime example: From the story

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=discovery+channel&iid=9640899″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9640899/gunman-takes-hostages/gunman-takes-hostages.jpg?size=500&imageId=9640899″ width=”234″ height=”259″ /]”The news of a gunman at the Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Silver Spring indeed traveled fast on Wednesday, but none of it came through radio, TV or newspaper Web sites, at least not at first. As it has with other breaking news events — the landing of a jet on the Hudson River in 2009, the 2008 massacre in Mumbai — the story unfolded first in hiccupping fits and starts on Twitter..”

At the American Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit this past Aug. 12, 2010, Heather Blanchard, one of the co-founders of Crisis Commons made the presentation: “Closing the Gap Between Public Expectation and Disaster Response Reality,  Call to Action: Finding Common Language for Cooperative Response.”  She made several interesting and compelling points regarding how the emergency management community could solve the conundrum of both engaging the public through social media and also handling the vast amount of information the new media provide.

How? Currently, in most response organizations, only the PIOs are responsible for social media in terms of both sending and receiving messages. This quote from the Washington Post story illustrates how much effort is involved in taking the raw information from Twitter, in this case, and then turning it into actionable intelligence.

But as rich as Wednesday’s Twitter feed was, it was merely a starting point for reporters. “The initial information may have come to us through these tools, but we have to apply the old-media skills of vetting and serving as a filter” for what’s accurate, said Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA-TV. “We can’t let raw info to go out over air. The front end is new, but we still have to do our work on the back end.”

Ms. Blanchard pointed out that during large events PIOs could easily become overwhelmed, as demonstrated by Mr. Humphrey’s tweet. Instead, she recommended that response organizations think about who in their community could be trained as volunteers to assist with data collection, aggregation and vetting, for example: students from local universities or people from local technology companies.

With regards to organizational structure, she presented an EOC org chart with the concept of a  newly created “technology cluster”. The cluster would include

  • an analytic cell
  • GIS cell
  • open source info
  • ESF Liaisons

The analytics cell would indicate their data requirements but would not process data: the “Data Operations Center” (which could be manned by volunteers) would search, aggregate, and vet information and potentially provide that information in a visualization tool.

This is an interesting proposition. Read through her slides and let me know what you think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s