Social media during crisis response: Five general lessons for emergency managers

Post by: Kim Stephens

I want to make some generalizations regarding lessons the emergency management community is learning from the deployment of social media during crises. These lessons are mostly based on domestic events, since the international response framework has decidedly different challenges/opportunities than the US system, although we are starting to see some of the efforts in the international humanitarian crisis mapping community “bleed” into the US. This isn’t a dissertation, just some observations.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=facebook&iid=9588332″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”143″ /]1. If you build it, they will come: If you set up systems to engage the public through social media, don’t be surprised when the public responds.

According to the report “Unending Flow” by Gerald Baron, mentioned in an earlier posting, at the height of the DeepWater Horizon Oil Spill Response “… typically 5 to 7 responders per day were focused on managing inquiries averaging nearly 1000 inquiries PER DAY (emphasis added). In some periods of high activity as many as 7 inquiries per minute were received.”  (page 16)

Now the question becomes, what do you do with all of that information?  The software the Coast Guard Command employed, called PIER, did allow them to track  and identify trending topics. Most of the inquiries could easily be categorized and therefore easily answered with pre-approved/pre-scripted responses. However, what about those few inquiries that could become valuable situational awareness data?  A direct link between the Joint Information Center and the Unified Command, according to Mr. Baron, will be a key in all response efforts to successful integration of this potentially valuable information.

  • Lesson 1.1: Response organizations, when deploying social media, need to be able to ramp up their public information/communications staff to engage the public in a timely manner.
  • Lesson 1.2: The information that comes from the public could be actionable intelligence, the Incident Command System should allow for that  information to flow back to the incident command staff.
  • Lesson 1.3: Your FaceBook page, twitter account, email account, website, you name it, will “blow up” (as the kids say). Ensure you have enough computing power to handle large influxes.
  • Lesson 1.4: Be prepared to continue building: widgets, video-feeds, live chats with responders…the list goes into infinity because who knows what new tools will be available for the next response. What we do know is that the public will want access to information through that yet unknowable tool. Hint, hint: iPad app.

2. If you don’t build it, they will come anyway. People will turn to social media tools to both provide and find information from any and all sources.

This point is illustrated by “Amanda’s Map“. The map was curated by Amanda Pingel, a University of Colorado student, during the Colorado Wildfires this past September and listed information such as fire areas, evacuation areas, response efforts, etc. This map had 1,826, 905  views. This was not the only map curated by civilians, there were at least 3 others with widespread distribution.

  • Lesson 2.1: If you don’t provide interactive, real-time information to the public they will find it elsewhere and then wonder–loudly, “Why didn’t the government provide this information!” Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recently said:[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=bp+oil+spill&iid=9267222″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]”We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.”
  • Lesson 2.2: Publicly curated information isn’t by definition “wrong”. We need to find a way to embrace this new-found power in the public. People will use this data to help themselves and others which will therefore ultimately result in more resilient communities.

3. Information moves fast. Cumbersome approval processes will ensure you are never the first ones reporting anything.

Referring to the Oil Spill, Mr. Baron points out “As the information flow and approval process became increasingly bureaucratic and approval times lagged, The External Affairs and JIC teams were often caught behind by the rapid nature of social media information sharing.” As a key lesson, Mr. Baron implores:

Lesson 3.1: “…response leaders must vigorously resist the inherent tendency to add overly burdensome layers of vetting and approval. As the approval process calcified by a stronger and stronger top-down presence, the value of the External Affairs and JIC operation diminished to the point where in many issues and situations it had no voice.”

4. Go where the people are: Social Media can be used as a form of rapid communication and save lives, especially with populations that use social networking extensively.

From a headline today (10-20-10): “Social Media Network Helps Prevent Disaster”. “Aid officials in the Philippines have credited social media sites like Facebook and Twitter with keeping the number of deaths caused by Typhoon Megi to only 10 so far. Thousands of people were persuaded to move to safer places or take precautionary measures before Megi struck on 18 October, officials say.   Alexander Rosete, a spokesman for the Philippines National Red Cross, told IRIN. “Now that we are using the Internet, the services are free of charge, and we send messages at no cost to us. It’s also more reliable and faster because nearly everyone’s on social networking sites.” The Philippines have also been described as the “text messaging capital of the world”.

  • Lesson 4.1: People will respond to alerts through social networking communication systems, especially if this is how they are used to receiving information. This, would be a lesson of particular importance for emergency managers of Colleges and Universities. I would think the American college student population rivals the Philippines in terms of social media usage. All University or Community College’s communications plans should include social media and text messaging as a way to quickly reach the student population. (In fact, text messaging alert services are almost ubiquitous at Universities).
  • Lesson 4.2: How people receive information is changing. Response personnel need to know and understand what means their own community uses to stay informed.

5. Especially at the local level, emergency managers shouldn’t be surprised if people with highly technical skills show up and offer to help.

Social media has provided new opportunities for people with technical skills to aid response organizations. Some volunteers are interested in passing out sandwiches to survivors, and others are interested in creating a multi-dimensional, 3D, geo-spatial application that models the unfolding events in real time. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. A case in point is the San Bruno Fire. Luke Beckman, a former Director of Disaster Operations for InStEDD, knew the capabilities he and others could bring to the response. Due to a personal relationship with that response community, he and a team of about 3-5 others volunteered their technical skills to be made of use by the incident command. With regard to their contribution: he states: “Mapping personnel … allow[ed] certain members of the incident command team to have better situational awareness, and to allow fire investigators and search teams to have a more accurate picture of the scene prior to deployment.” Being able to tap these highly technical volunteers, he laments, is not a part of the localities Standard Operating Procedures–“but it could be.

They learned many lessons in employing these volunteers, I’ll just highlight a few

  • 5.1 Know and understand who is in your community with highly technical skills that you might be able to call on during a response. The San Bruno response personnel only knew of these folks through “tenuous” connections. When the call went out for others to volunteer it was done on a Friday night to office phones-well after people had left. These people indicated they have would helped if they would have received notification.
  • 5.2 At a minimum, know and understand how to contact these individuals and vise versa.  A private company with highly technically skilled employees (Cisco is mentioned) wanted to help, and even tried calling numerous times, but couldn’t get through; phones were tied up and they did not know how else to reach emergency personnel.
  • 5.3 Include these community technical resources in your planning and  exercise activities as well as in your Standard Operating Procedures. Trying to incorporate their services during the middle of a response effort is fair at best. If they cannot show up during normal business hours for exercises, but would be able to donate time during a response, find a way to simulate their contributions.

I’m afraid this posting could go on for 100 pages, but I find these to be some of the more salient lessons that have come out of, what seems to be “the year of social media”. Let me know which lessons I missed.

8 responses to “Social media during crisis response: Five general lessons for emergency managers

  1. Dear Kim

    Thanks for linking to one of our blog posts.

    One comment I wanted to make regarding your post is that while this works very well, in cases like Haiti and Pakistan, they fail to work due to the telecommunication as well as electricity grid no longer functioning properly.

    I find social media a wonderful thing but as my link above shows, if the infrastructure has been destroyed, people can no longer be reached via social media.

    In such a case, radio (e.g., news bulletins) might be the best way.

    Thanks again for sharing this very interesting post.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Digest for October 25th

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  6. Great post. I’ve linked this to a relevant post over at my blog, FYI. Here’s the link:

  7. Great article on social networking sites coz I am also aspiring to own social site.

    Thanks Mate!

  8. social media and crisis? Great piece of article

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