Category Archives: Government Web 2.0

Emergency Preparedness, Web 2.0-Community Style

Post by: Kim Stephens

sf72Getting the public to pay attention to emergency preparedness information can be a challenge. Research in this area tells us that “community-based participatory approaches to designing and disseminating risk communication for at-risk populations, and offering messages in multiple modes that are locally and personally relevant, would have many benefits for strengthen emergency preparedness, response, and recovery for at-risk populations, but are currently underutilized.” Meredith, et al (2008).   Although social media has helped provide a participatory multi-modal approach, there are still many improvements that could be made.

San Francisco, with leadership from Alicia Johnson (@UrbanAreaAlicia) the city’s Resilience and Recovery Manager, is making huge leaps in providing personally relevant preparedness information with the revamp of their 72 Hours preparedness site SF72 or San Francisco 72 Hours. I should note that Alicia emphasized that the site is a team effort and includes the design and innovation consulting firm Ideo, @ideo; Rob Dudgeon, the Director of SF Emergency Services or @sfDEMrob; and Kristin Hogan or @kristinlhogan.

I spoke with an Alicia about the goals and direction this site will be taking. She stated that SF72 concept came from the realization that our current preparepdness messaging is not working.

“So much of what we do is based on individuals preparedness. But research from recent disasters has shown us that people prepare and respond as communities. You never recover from a disaster as an individual, you recover as a community.”

The new site is not quite finished at the time of writing. Once it is done and vetted with SF stakeholders, including the public, the plan is to replace the existing 72Hours.org,

3 Common Preparedness Messaging Mistakes This Type of Site Can Address

photo-91.  Too much information in a non-visual format. We live in an era of video and image communication, yet we continue to provide the public information in a heavy-text format. Public safety organizations are not alone in committing this error. For instance, my high school junior literally tosses college information mailers in the trash if they only include a letter and few, if any, pictures. Mailers that do have a lot of images, however, get placed on her bulletin board.  In terms of public safety,  I commend the new wave of  preparedness apps coming out of emergency management offices, however, quite a few of them look like the screen shot above. And although all of the information is complete, I have to wonder why the content wasn’t made more accessible, with icons or pictures for instance, especially since this particular page is tailored for people with special needs.

banner image

2. Not enough interactive content.  Providing a laundry list of protective action measures is not necessarily the best method to communicate this information.  More than likely it is not even read (see #1).  Even though a list may provide all of the correct content, active learning is way more fun, meaning it holds people’s attention. This increases the chance that the material is retained. The SF72 site embraces this active model, which is evident in the “Quake Quiz,” an interactive quiz that is not only very visual but interesting enough to hold the attention of kids and adults alike. Other apps, such as the game associated with the Disaster Preppers TV show, also provides an example of how preparedness content doesn’t have to be dry, but can actually be entertaining as well.

disasterprep

3. No (or not enough) emphasis on sharing. As the general public moves more and more towards openness this sometimes causes uneasiness in government sectors: sharing isn’t caring… it as a violation of the personal privacy protection act. However, asking people to share with their social networks how they are  preparing  is a great idea/best practice. Why? We know people will often respond more positively when asked to do something by a friend versus a government agency. (See the CDC’s 2012 Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Manual.)

Providing the opportunity for sharing is one thing that the SF72 site also does well. People are asked, for instance, to share that they took the quake quiz and even have access to a bit of code in order to place a banner on any website or blog (which is how I included the image above).  They also intend to include videos of people talking about their experiences during large and small disaster (e.g. a house fire) and how they were prepared, or what they would have done differently. This statement on the site demonstrates their desire to embrace the concept of community.

SF72 is San Francisco’s gathering place for emergency preparedness.
We believe in connection, not catastrophe. We believe in the power of many pairs of hands. We believe in supporting the city we love.
 

I’m looking forward to seeing the entire site completed.  Alicia also told me that once it is finished, it will be available to other communities to adopt as well, since they are doing the project in an open source format. The quake quiz, however, is a licensed product. If you are interested in more information you can reach Alicia via Twitter or provide a comment below.

Is your organization doing anything similar? Let me know.

Recovers.Org Reflects on their Hurricane Sandy Effort

Caitria O’Neill of Recovers.org passed this information along to me detailing their efforts during Hurricane Sandy. Recovers.org defines themselves as an organization that “…helps towns organize disaster recovery with mobile and web-based technology.”  The statistics presented below are as of November 10, 2012.  I like her conclusions so much I’m going to put them first:

This experience, more than any other in our history, has convinced me of the need for this type of platform. We need coordination between government, nonprofit and grassroots efforts. We need fewer forms, smarter tools, and cleaner data. We need simple, accessible information BEFORE a disaster, letting ordinary people know how to get involved in a safe, efficient manner.

Guest Post by: Caitria O’Neill

Here’s a check in from the team at Recovers.org. We had a whirlwind week after Hurricane Sandy, launching software for four neighborhoods in the city. This is an update from the software on the front line. 

Three successes:

1.) We bridged the interest/aid gap: In the first week, we were able to database over 23,000 skilled volunteers and item donors. These resources are now meeting needs. 

Reported needs are steadily increasing as more and more residents return home and assess the damage. While these volunteers could not all be used in the immediate aftermath, they are needed more than ever now.1.) We bridged the gap: In the first week, we were able to database over 23,000 skilled volunteers and item donors.

Google Search “Volunteer Sandy”
Recovers.org site traffic

Local organizations in impacted areas did not have the capacity to do this in the first week. Thanks to our site. We’ve taken the peak of interest in the disaster, and given it to them for long-term recovery. These organizers have already met over 100 needs reported through the site, with more coming in daily. Many more needs were met through posting public calls for volunteers on the front page of the site.

Compare the graphs for the Google search “Volunteer Hurricane Sandy” and a graph of our site traffic in the same time. Local churches and nonprofits operating in the deadzone could not translate this interest into aid in real time. We did – and effectively translated these web searches by motivated volunteers into a database record of skills and items that local churches and nonprofits can continue to leverage far into the future.

2.) The community owned their own recovery: While our tool kit contributed greatly to the initial capacity, this effort was completely owned and operated by local organizers on the ground. This wasn’t Recovers.org riding in on a white horse, this was application of a tool kit, by neighborhoods that needed it.

In NYC, we launched sites for the Lower East Side,  Red Hook, Astoria and Staten Island in partnership with the burgeoning Occupy Sandy movement. Our understanding was that each of these sites belonged to the communities they were named for, would remain there long-term, but that the people providing aid quickly should have the means to do so. Occupy Sandy was able to jumpstart recovery across the city – moving masses of people and goods from where they showed up to where they were needed most.

Now, we are seeing more and more community leaders and local organizations begin to take ownership of these tools. Pet shelters seeking pet-specific skills in volunteers. Local nonprofits looking for translators. Organizations with remote volunteers who want to help by matching needs and aid as administrators. Know any? Have them email support@recovers.org.

3.) We’ve learned: I’m not sure we were ready for Hurricane Sandy – but we now know we can handle a landscape scale disaster in the largest city in the US. We’ve also learned exactly how hard this is.

It is imperative that these systems be implemented BEFORE a disaster. Trying to reach and train administrators in a dead-zone, to teach them how to use an unfamiliar system during a disaster is unworkable. Here, it only worked through blood, sweat, tears, and dedicated volunteers. We were unable to provide additional sites for areas like Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Lindenhurst NY that also sustained damage.

We also learned a great deal about the way our tools are seen and used in the absence of training. We’ve built a long list of changes to implement, and have been responding to feedback in real time to make the site easier to use. Keep it coming.

Next Steps: 

This experience, more than any other in our history, has convinced me of the need for this type of platform. We need coordination between government, nonprofit and grassroots efforts. We need fewer forms, smarter tools, and cleaner data. We need simple, accessible information BEFORE a disaster, letting ordinary people know how to get involved in a safe, efficient manner.

Update: This organization was featured on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/16/recoversorg-founders-buil_n_2143642.html

Infographic: A world without wikipedia

Created by: Online University
Online World Blacked Out

Disaster 2.0 in Australia

Post By: Kim Stephens

The Australian Government 2.0 Task Force was formed back in 2009 in order to determine how best to leverage public sector information and online engagement. They went through a process similar to what the Obama administration went through upon taking office in 2008.

But what I found most interesting, not surprisingly, was the Emergency 2.0 component. For one, I love that a quote from Brian Humphrey of LAFD was displayed promently on the blog: “We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government…we have responsibilities to the public to move the information as quickly as possible…so that they can make key decisions.

With regard to emergency managment they had some key findings. I think almost every one of these could apply here in the U.S. today, April 2011:

  • The key themes… for all stakeholders are trust, transparency and timeliness
  • Citizens are willing to trade-off reliability and accuracy for timeliness in certain circumstances, (emphasis added) and will resort to other information sources such as social media if the official authorities cannot provide timely information.
  • EM2 services need to:
    • make use of multiple channels but with consistent messages
    • be interactive and responsive
    • be ‘relevant to me’ (ie personalised)
  • For Agencies, there are a number of factors to balance:
    • Quality vs timeliness of information
    • Control vs. (perceived) chaos
    • All Hazards and PPRR
  • From a technology viewpoint, applications and services need to be:
    • standards-based to enable aggregation and mash-ups
    • low-tech & robust
    • fast-evolving (e.g. Twitter Geo-API)

Unsurprisingly, many of the crowdsourced recommendations (and those that received the most votes in our idea register) echo common themes that have been seen in Government 2.0 discussions, such as:

  • Creating open access to emergency data, to ensure others can mashup and contribute to useful services.
  • Ensuring useful government data is subscribed (eg RSS) so citizens can be kept up to date
  • Increasing executive awareness and buy-in (emphasis added)
  • Building audience literacy.

Since the massive flooding event in Australia they continue to build on these recommendations. Of course, the Queensland Police Service Media Department (as I’ve documented here) used social media with great success. But during the symposium “Social Media in Times of Crisis,” reported on by Stephen Collins of Acid Labs blog, the local governments are also looking to provide new ways for citizens to engage and contribute. This includes an emergency 2.0 wiki and the use of Ushahidi. Mr. Collins described Ipswich City Council’s concept for the emergency 2.0 wiki:

  • the wiki is under development and is intended for use by the public, responders and government as a light weight, agile way to improve informa­tion with respect to emergency and disaster management with out the need to process emergent matters and best practice through a lengthy lessons learned process that fails to adapt to changing situations and new information;
  • the wiki, with an initial focus on Queensland services, will provide “trusted, locally sourced information allowing communities to self-​​mobilise, develop resilience and lever age social capital”;
  • one of the drivers for the wiki was the Social Media for Emergency Manage­ment project that emerged from the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

Mr. Collins concludes his blog summary of the event lamenting that the government isn’t further along with its ability to embrace or leverage fairly mature technologies. Honestly, however, I think they might be much further along than we are. Read his entire post, it’s quite interesting.

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Social Media/Web 2.0 and NIMS

A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in i...

Image via Wikipedia

Guest Post By: Hal Grieb, Emergency Manager from Plano, Texas

I recently had the opportunity to speak on the impact of social media and web 2.0 on National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) and more importantly the command and management component of NIMS. After speaking I thought it could benefit a larger audience by writing a little on my thoughts and interpretation of its impact. As a quick background, I have been ensuring NIMS compliance for over 3 years in the agencies I have worked for and also have been teaching and implementing NIMS for just as long. I also want to discern the separation of NIMS and Incident Command Systems (ICS), as they are in fact, not the same thing. I also realize that the NIMS is by no means perfect and could use some updates. Prior to my civilian job I was in the Army National Guard for 10 years and quickly embraced ICS due to the similarities with the military command and control guidelines that help any soldier be placed into any situation and have some base level of operating in new circumstances. To me, the NIMS training and implementation guidance helps form a pseudo public safety basic training. In essence it facilitates governments and responders ranging from fire to finance be placed into any disaster and have some sort of basic framework and jargon to work together in. I wish to show how NIMS is not the problem; neither is ICS, Joint Information Systems, or Multi Agency Coordination Systems.

Before we get lost in NIMS; definitions need to be stated. Social Media and Web 2.0 have been defined in multiple ways, so I will do my best to explain my view. Social Media sites are specific community driven sites that allow a user (you and I) to create an online persona or profile in order to connect and communicate back and forth with other users. Examples include Facebook, twitter, MySpace, etc. Web 2.0 applications are slightly different. While on Web 2.0 applications you can still connect with other users after creating a profile, they are primarily used for and more specific purpose. Examples include YouTube (which allow users to share videos), picassa (a site for picture uploading and editing), GeoChat a tool for group communications based on SMS, email, Twitter, and QR codes (which with a free download on your smart phone allows you to obtain instant answers and links using a smart phone camera.)

In addition to understanding the definitions of new technologies, we must also remember historical precedents that gave way to huge dissent in their first stages of adoption. When live television feeds came out, responders had to begin adapting the way they created perimeters. When electronic mail was put into offices, offices policies and user roles need to be defined. This is important to note, no agencies needed to re-create their overall strategies or business models. They did have to change internal use policies and procedures on the issues these technologies had for their specific areas. Social Media and other web 2.0 applications are simply tools in themselves; by no means are they a new, one size fit all model of communication. They merely augment the systems and tools agencies currently have in place.

In today’s modern response, could you imagine any response to an incident or major event that didn’t utilize live camera feeds from a command post or even the media? How effective would today’s government function without electronic mail even without a disaster or major event? Yes, I do realize with all the great benefits of technology there are also drawbacks. However, no side of the technology argument is 100% correct. When addressing implementation of any technology we must understand the downside of our side and the upside of the opposite. By leveraging all viewpoints maturely we can then allow a resolution of social media and web 2.0 tensions, albeit not the solution to either sides problems.

So does this fit into NIMS? First, understand that for any agency or government that utilizes federal homeland security funds, NIMS became their framework on February 28, 2003 when Homeland Security Presidential Directive -5 was signed by President George W. Bush. The NIMS, while not at all perfect, encourages agencies to embrace and implement new technologies. The NIMS document clearly states in the Ongoing Management and Maintenance Component under Supporting Technologies, “Ongoing development of science and technology is integral to the continual improvement and refinement of NIMS. NIMS leverages science and technology to improve capabilities and lower costs”. Social Media and Web 2.0 application are these very types of technologies. Clearly demonstrating the argument that, by not using social media or web 2.0, an agency or jurisdiction could not be correctly implementing the NIMS and not in compliance!

In an agencies implementation of social media, many say ICS, JIS, and MACS guidance needs to be re-written to explicitly state social media’s usage on an incident. My first argument harkens back to my earlier remarks on email and live tv feeds. These tools are not explicitly stated in the guidance, so what makes social media and web 2.0 applications special? Often the true problem is the incident commander or Public information officer limiting the use of new technologies due to slow press release policies or lack of trust, or education on them. This demonstrates not the inefficiencies of the ICS, JIS, or MACS guidance more the specific agency or people that influence the tactical policies to support the guidance. Re-writing a federal document does not make the people that fall under it framework any more educated or accepting of its use. Time, instruction and changes of specific agency procedures make social media work in incident command.

Furthermore, social media and web 2.0 is not specific to just the “push” of information out to the public, it is also imperative agencies listen or facilitate the “pull” information effectively. The PIO does this to ensure message clarity and rumor control. In addition, the IC needs to understand the pull to ensure the safety of his incident. Incident commanders have the ability to employ multiple ICS tools to facilitate this. Remember, social media allows public safety agencies to see and gather information and intelligence (info/intell) like never before. But we have also seen numerous incidents where by-standers take pictures of police snipers, mobile command posts, and other public safety resources.

ICS has flexible guidance that allows information and intelligence pulled in via multiple positions. The incident command can either pull information and intelligence themselves, designate a person as Info/Intell command staff officer, create a Info/Intell General Staff Branch, create a position within the Planning Section, or for more tactical decision information put a unit directly under the incident’s operations section. The truth is, there is room in ICS, JIS, and MACS for a specific unit, person, or function to utilize social media and other web 2.0 tools. Even still, there are enormous benefits for all personnel in any of the aforementioned positions to have some sort of basic understanding of the tools they have at their disposal even when not tasked with solely using them.

As time goes on and there are more case use examples availiable, public safety agencies will soon begin to amend their strategies and tactics to include new tools such as social media and other web 2.0 applications. This is the beauty of the NIMS document; it gives us only broad guidance to ensure that agencies do not stay still and  strive to define how they can answer the the broad goals of integrating not only new disciplines and personnel into all hazards efforts, but also new internal and external processes, tools, and technology as well.

Post Script: This post is also listed on the First Responders Communities of Practice page, where a few people have already commented. Request a registration and join in the debate.

DHS/FEMA Using Web 2.0 to collaborate, share, listen and learn

091120-A-3715G-177

Image by jim.greenhill via Flickr

Post by: Kim Stephens

Through the use of Web 2.0 tools and social media, DHS and FEMA are trying to increase communications and collaboration with the state and local emergency management community and the general public as well. A lot has been written about FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s commitment to social media. It seems that he mentions the importance of the medium in most of his speeches. This week FEMA went “all-in” with the publication of their own blog. The first post on Dec. 14th was from Craig himself. He stated:

At FEMA we have a Facebook pageTwitter pageI tweet and earlier this year we launched our first-ever mobile website, but what we didn’t have was a blog. Well, now that we have one, you’re probably wondering what you can expect. Plain and simple, this will be another tool we’ll use to communicate and let you know what we’re up to. This won’t be another way to put out our press releases – this is a way to communicate directly with you.

The blog also features all of the posts from the Administrator in a tab called Craig’s Corner. Yesterday he wrote about the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

But I think comments from citizens and how FEMA addresses them will be one of the most interesting aspects to watch. They do have a comment policy which states:

This is a moderated blog. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly “off topic” or that promote services or products or contain any links. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. (emphasis added)

But based on the comments already on the post, it is obvious that they will not be dis-allowing critical comments. One commentator stated in reaction to Craig’s post about the tribal summit: “Where was FEMA when the Sioux had a massive power outage due to an ice storm?”  This could serve as an example for local governments trying to engage the public through open forums but fearful of criticisms that might be leveled at their agencies.  In order to have an open dialog, it is necessary to listen to both criticisms and complements.

The second way DHS and FEMA are engaging the emergency management community is through a new web portal called First Responders Communities of Practice. DHS has created a somewhat secure environment– registered users only– where response community members can collaborate to share ideas, lessons learned and best practices.

It won’t surprise you to know that I am most interested in the community of practice called “Making American Safer Through Social Media”. Listed there are social media policy examples; reports, analysis and papers; related news articles, and more. Just the other day I found an excellent report called Social Media on Incidents, Some Lessons Learned by Kris Ericksen.

I think the take-away here is that we all have a lot to learn, and the best way is by sharing and listening. I’m glad DHS and FEMA are providing an environment to do just that.

Four ways social media and interactive technologies are used to prepare, mitigate, and recover from disasters

Flood in Znojmo (2006) 5

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

New technologies such as social media and mobile interactive applications are starting to have an impact in the field of emergency management. The impact is not occurring in just the response phase, as has been widely reported, but also during the preparedness, mitigation and even the recovery phase as well. Here are a few recent examples:

1. Preparedness

During the preparedness phase the real challenge is to make the information compelling so that people pay attention. A few emergency managers are trying to peak the public’s interest by employing interactive game technology and by designing games for use through social media platforms.

  • This November, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, funded by a grant from FEMA and in partnership with the Electronic Visualizations Lab, the National Center for Supercomputering Applications and the Center for Public Safety and Justice, announced the development of an interactive game for children to learn disaster preparedness and response strategies. The first simulation is called: “The Day the Earth Shook” which has a focus on preparing for an earthquake, as the name implies. The players are encouraged to help two avatars build a survival kit, find all the safe and unsafe areas in their home, and learn to protect themselves.
  • Clark Regional Emergency Services, with a game set to kick off Dec. 1, is employing social media to engage adults in preparedness activities. Their game is called #12 Days Prepared. The game will include a different scenario each day for a total of 12 days. From their blog: “Game participants will be asked to answer 2 basic questions: 1. What are the initial actions you would take upon hearing this scenario? 2. How do you think the community should prepare for such an event?” Answers can be submitted through twitter, facebook, email or the blog’s comment section and earn the players raffle tickets.  A drawing at the end of the game will reveal the winners of a few modest prizes.

2. Mitigation

In October, the United State Geological Survey and the National Weather Service announced the first-of-its-kind “online interactive flood warning tool” which is being piloted in the area surrounding Georgia’s Flint River. Although this tool is currently being used primarily as an early warning system, hopefully, the information about potential threats will help the surrounding communities make better decisions with regard to zoning in order to mitigate future losses.

The Flood Inundation Mapping product is an interactive web-based tool that shows the extent and depth of flood waters over given land areas. These maps enable management officials and residents to see where the potential threat of floodwaters is the highest. Other monitoring tools that provide flood information include streamgages, which provide real time data via satellites to the USGS and NWS for many purposes, including water supply, drought monitoring, and flood warnings. Relative to real time streamgage readings, the Flood Inundation Maps illustrate where floodwaters are expected to travel based upon NWS flood forecasts.

In mitigation of another kind, against school violence as a result or consequence of bullying, Frontline SMS has a new mobile reporting tool called “bully proof“. This system was designed to allow student to send anonymous text messages to school administrators about incidents of bullying or even to report incidences of violence as they happen real-time. The software is free and open source.

3. Recovery/Response

This November, the Town of Davie, Florida announced the application of new technologies as part of  their infrastructure branch plan for response and restoration efforts in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane. The plan has two main elements: “1. the pre-scripting of response and recovery actions; and (2) the utilization of electronic project-management tools rooted in GIS.”  The project management tools consists of both a mobile damage assessment resource tool (MDART) and Command Center GIS (CCGIS).  Their application brings the following capabilities:

  • “An automated and electronic field inventory of damage, featuring easy-to-use GIS field tools.
  • Real-time visualization and mapping within the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of the damage-assessment data collected in the field.
  • A real-time “running tally” and assessment of the extent of the damage, including real-time progress tracking of field crews, built-in and automated cost-for-replacement calculations, and the CCGIS Dashboard Toolkit.
  • Command Center incident response, decision making and immediate planning using information coming into the EOC from MDART.
  • Streamlined and electronic reporting for FEMA…
  • A transparent government toolbox featuring a mapping portal solution to make damage inventory and assessment data available to the public and media.”

It seems like the next few years will bring about many changes in the EM field with new technologies playing an ever increasing role in communications, data collection/distribution and information management. Current students majoring in EM might even consider a minor in ICT: information, communication and technology.

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New to Social Media? Here’s the first piece of the puzzle.

Guest Post: Cheryl Bledsoe
Cheryl has 15 years of experience in state and county government. Currently serving as the Emergency Management Division Manager at the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA). Supervise & manage Emergency Operations Center for geographic area serving population center of 424,000.

Social Media Landscape

The world of social media can seem overwhelming to the newcomer.  There are many articles and presentations which tout its importance, but when faced with all of the online possibilities, it can seem easier to simply turn off the computer and avoid making any changes. Here are some simple tips and tools for understanding and observing the very basics of social media:

  • Spend 3-5 minutes per day watching a tutorial video like those available in the “social media pack” at www.commoncraft.com.  Each of these videos are 2-3 minutes in length and will give you a very basic understanding of key terms and concepts.
  • Find 2-3 blogs that you like to read.  Pay attention, not only to the content, but what do you like about what you see.
  • If you have a personal Facebook Fan Page, start paying attention to the businesses in your local community.  How do they promote themselves?  How often do they post something new about their business?  And what seems to be popular locally?
  • If you don’t have a Twitter account, venture onto www.TweetGrid.com and do a couple of keyword searches for some of the items in the news.  Watch how people talk to each other in this medium.  Look for #hashtags and @[name] mentions.  Click on either to learn more about the topic or see who is doing the talking.

The key is to be patient with yourself in learning about social media.  Because it is less than 5 years old, in most cases, there are many people who are still learning the ropes and many who will share their personal experiences in its use.  The challenge is to avoid running and breaking it down into bite-sized puzzle pieces so that you and your agency can use it effectively to share the information that needs to be heard.

 

If someone tweets for help, and help doesn’t come, is the local public safety agency liable?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Post by: Kim Stephens

Recently I talked to my local emergency management agency about incorporating social media in their communications strategy.  One concern arose that stumped me:  if an agency using social media receives a report of an injury through Twitter, Facebook or any platform, are they liable if they don’t respond?

Some people would ask:  Why wouldn’t a response agency be able to react?  Although most emergency response organizations have 24 hour operations, at the local level in particular often only one person is responsible for monitoring social media communications and that person clearly would not working ’round the clock. Larger organizations have Public Information Officers on duty 24/7, but small organizations do not have that luxury.

This limited capability is usually not what the public imagines, as we saw with the American Red Cross survey completed this past Aug. (See earlier post on this topic.) The finding that most concerns me here is:

…the survey respondents expected quick response to an online appeal for help—74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post. (American Red Cross)

This expectation has been of concern to me, so I raised the matter with some outside experts.  The essential questions deal with responsibility and liability.  Specifically, how can  response organizations engage in social media yet not raise public expectations that it will be monitored 24/7 and replace 911, and not expose the agency to future lawsuits?

From the experts I talked to, here are some answers.  According to Mike Ellis of Code Red at ECN,  and confirmed by Claire Reiss of the Public Entity Risk Institute, you simply make it clear on  your social media site, in a prominent place, that you do not accept emergency notifications. Similar to the message you might hear if you call your Dr.’s office “If this is an emergency hang up and dial 911.” You should also make it clear that the social media sites are not monitored 24/7 if that is the case. There is one caveat, however, if someone sends a tweet or a post indicating an injury and your organizations responds to that communication, then the clock will start. If you tell the person help is on the way, it should be on the way in real-time since an expectation will have been established.

This does not mean, however, that any injury a person asks you about has to be ignored. An example comes from the LAFD’s use of social media. In one case a citizen sent a tweet to the LAFD saying that he/she had burned a hand. The PIO, Bryan Humphrey,  told the person some general first aid info (e.g. place burn under cold water) but also said to call 911 if  the injury was bad enough.  Instead of just telling them to “call 911″ he engaged the person, but also directed them to the proper call center if it was necessary.

This, however, doesn’t even address what could happen if the person received a busy signal from 911 and then turned to the agency’s Facebook page for help. That is another matter for another posting.

My personal opinion is that response organizations may, in the future, have to hire more people expressly for the job of monitoring social media. Could the new hires be part of the 911 center, since that is already activated 24/7?  In this era of decreasing budgets that probably is not likely to happen. Another option is to recruit trained volunteers, via the Citizen Corps or CERT programs at the local level, especially for use during major crises or disasters. This is an option we will explore in a future posting.

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Survey Results of Federal and State Use of Social Media

Two different organizations recently surveyed State and Federal Government employees and contractors in order to determine adoption, application, expectation and challenges regarding the implementation of social media.  Market Connections, Inc. released a report entitled Social Media in the Federal Community. The other report, entitled Friends, Followers, and Feeds, was written by the National Association of State CIOs Social Media Working group (NASCIO).

NASCIO’s survey had a high participation rate with 79% of states’ CIOs responding. The biggest challenges the states listed with regard to implementing social media included security, liability, privacy, records maintenance/management and terms of acceptable use. On a personal note, visiting with local Emergency Management Agencies I also find these concerns to be the biggest impediments. Legal concerns are troubling to Emergency Management Agencies in particular since they could potentially involve a life-threatening scenario. For example, if someone was unable to dial 911 due to lack of connectivity, but had enough of a signal to send a tweet or a text, would emergency services be liable if they did not respond? (If you know the answer please comment.)

Another interesting finding from NASCIO were the responses regarding “next steps”. Not surprisingly, a large number of respondents acknowledged the need to integrate mobile social media into their communications strategy.

  • “The growth of online government in the future will increasingly be in the mobile environment (emphasis added), and it is expected that state governments will be exploiting this extensively through social media channels. A growing number of end-users already look at their governments almost exclusively through the three and a half inch screens of their smartphones, and this trend will only continue. States will be expected to know how they look and perform through that lens.”
  • “Utah state government has moved quickly in the areas of integration and aggregation and incorporated social media and other Web 2.0 technologies prominently in the major website design of Utah.gov in 2009. (Go see their site, it’s very nice!) Their connect.utah.gov page offers mobile applications and geo-IP location-aware technology to personalize each user’s experience, and dozens of interactive services are provided to make Utah.gov more convenient for Utah citizens and businesses.”

The survey of Federal Agencies and Federal Contractors was conducted by Market Connections, Inc.. They also found security concerns to be the top challenge regarding adoption.  Government contractors, on the other hand, seemed to understand how social media can help  with “building the company’s brand” with 86% percents seeing this as the main benefit of increasing their SM presence. Sixty-one percent of contractor respondents indicated that they plan to increase their budget for SM in the next 12-18 months. This can be compared to the Federal responses where only 22% indicated they plan to increase their use of social media in the next 12-18 months. It seems contractors are starting to see SM as a necessary part of their business plan while some federal employees still seem to view the entire endeavor with suspicion.

A large portion of respondents in all the surveys indicated that one of the challenges to adoption is a “lack of resources to maintain presence”. Anecdotally, I have also found this to be true at the local level: more often than not there is no staff position called “social media guru”. This may change in the future, but for a lot of offices one “lucky” person gets to do the job in addition to their normal duties.