Post by: Kim Stephens
During Hurricane Irene and the aftermath, Chief Vincent Caruso of the Lodi, New Jersey Police Department, found what many emergency management and law enforcement organizations are discovering: social media are a great avenue for the dissemination of information in a crisis. Lodi is a smallish town with a population of about 24,000, but is located in the pretty densely populated area near Hackensack, NJ. I had an opportunity to chat with the Chief today regarding his experiences during Irene, and I think it is pretty typical of what we are finding with other public safety institutions.
1. Only the Police Department (not OEM) used social media platforms to disseminate information. Towns, cities and counties are starting to realize that they have to decide which social media account will be the official voice during a crisis. I am finding, even in my own county, that crisis communications are posted in multiple places. In larger jurisdictions, it seems every organization has a facebook page and a twitter account: the fire department, the city police department, the county sheriff’s office, the county government, the mayor, the town council, the office of emergency management…you get the idea. Deciding which of these organizations will be THE voice for the crisis is a really important discussion to have before an event occurs. We have to remember that the Joint Information Center or system applies to social media. If a system is not in place, it makes it almost impossible to maintain message consistency. Letting the public know which of these streams to follow is another vital part of the process.
For Lodi, this was not an issue, even without an official JIC, since only one organization (and one person) was responsible for posting to social media platforms. I was curious why the Police Department versus the Office of Emergency Management was responsible for disseminating crisis information. Apparently, and this could be true for other smaller communities, their OEM is only staffed part-time when there is not an on-going response. OEM also did not have any experience with social media and the Police Department did. Therefore, it was an easy decision to keep information flowing via these established, pre-Irene accounts. Also, since only one person was responsible for posting content, obviously, there was not an issue regarding message coordination.
2. Social media did allow LPD to gain situational awareness from citizens. One question that is always asked when talking about social media to public safety professionals is “how do you trust the information from citizens that comes to you via social networks?”. I asked the chief how he decided whether or not a citizen report was valid enough for him to repeat: his response was along the lines of “trust but verify”. However, the Police Department’s facebook page is open, meaning people are allowed to post to the wall. Of course, when information, like the example above, is posted, that means others are able to see it, whether you repeat it or not. It also means people see information that is incorrect: one person asked “How big is the tornado?”. The response was “There is no reported tornado at this time.” However, there was a tornado watch earlier that day so the question wasn’t completely out of the blue.
I also asked how this information made its way to OEM. He said it was mostly done face-to-face since they work very near each other in the same building. However, OEM staff did monitor the social media accounts in order to understand what was being said, especially if the Chief was out of the building.
3. Clearing content for release is not difficult when the person drafting the content is also the person in charge.
PIOs can face difficulty trying to release information in a timely manner, especially if the Incident Commander wants to tightly control the message. During the September 16, 2011 #smemchat a PIO from Texas, who provided crisis communications via social networks during the recent Bastrop wildfire, stated that she was not allowed to tweet information in real-time from press conferences. She stated in a tweet that this was “because the county was concerned about ‘approval’ of info before it went out”. But, as she said, why not? The information is already out there–it’s a press conference! To me, this speaks more to an issue of trust than an issue of the medium.
With this in mind, I ask the LPD Chief about his clearance processes. He found it kind of amusing since he was sole the person responsible for disseminating information–Chief of Police and a PIO all in one. He indicated, however, that processes will have to be put in place if he hires or uses borrowed staff in the next event–see #4. He’s assuming there will be another event since the town is prone to flooding.
4. Trying to keep a steady flow of information and also monitor social networks for comments, @ messages, and rumors is labor intensive. The Chief acknowledged that being the sole purveyor of social media content was almost too much for one person. He basically worked 48 hours straight during the height of the storm. When he was away from his desktop computer he kept an eye on the official accounts, answering questions and posting updates, from various mobile devices.
5. Posting information to social media platforms reduces the call volume. One of the biggest benefits response organizations are reporting regarding the use of social media is the reduction of phone calls (see this article as well). Although I am not aware of any quantitative study detailing the exact percentage reduction, anecdotal evidence seems to prove the hypothesis. An emergency manager, and friend of mine from nearby Cecil County Maryland, recounted at a recent conference that during Irene personnel in his 911 center asked him “What’s going on? We normally have hundreds more calls. We don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up.” What he was doing was posting information to social networks as soon as it was available.
Reading through the facebook posts on the LPD page, it becomes obvious what people wanted to know: “When will the power come back on?” Whenever there’s a power outage people call the police station–even though this isn’t even the correct place to report the problem. Chief Caruso indicated that by using social networks, he saw a marked reduction in those types of inquiries. People also let the police department know when they had power restored, which is useful information.
6. People will flock to your social media presence in a crisis. I have stated on numerous occasions that people might not necessarily find preparedness messages compelling, therefore, you might have a meager following on your facebook page and other social media accounts before a crisis. But, if you are not prepared for the onslaught when something does happen in your town, then you haven’t been paying attention. Chief Caruso was not overwhelmed per se, but he was a little surprised at how popular his facebook site became: an 11,000% increase in fans. He saw a huge increase in Twitter followers as well. Even though each one of these fans might not see each message, more fans means the more people are there asking questions, making comments, and hopefully passing that information along to friends and family.
As the @FireTracker2 alluded during the Sept. 12 chat, we pontificate endlessly about the public being “prepared” yet most public safety organizations don’t have plans, procedures and systems in place to take advantage of communicating via social media in a crisis. How many more examples do we need? Plan now.