Category Archives: Social Media and Emergency Management

Incorporating Social Media Into Your Exercises #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens


Social media is now a common tool emergency management and response organizations turn to in order to interact with the public before, during and after a disaster event. However, testing the use of social media during exercises has proven to be problematic. Agencies are reluctant to use their own social accounts in a live environment because they do not want to confuse or scare their followers with exercise updates; fake social platforms often fall-flat in terms of realism.  In today’s post, I want to suggest a third alternative.

Using Real but Unidentifiable Accounts

You can provide an exercise environment that allows participants to engage with content online, with social platforms agencies use everyday. This can be done by utilizing real but unidentifiable social media accounts in a closed or semi-closed environment (e.g. Twitter protected accounts and Facebook groups marked as private, closed or secret, and a blog site set up with disabled search engine indexing). In a recent exercise, my team and I employed a total of 7 different types of online platforms in order to accomplish our goal of providing as realistic as possible news and social environment. However, for the purposes of this post, I would like to focus on the processes we used for Twitter, Facebook and WordPress.

Protected Twitter Accounts


Our team used protected Twitter accounts to provide participants the ability to operate in a social platform they were used to and it gave us the ability to limit access.  “Accounts with protected Tweets require manual approval of each and every person who may view that account’s Tweets”  ( Twitter states the following:

When you protect your Tweets, the following restrictions are put in place:
  • People will have to request to follow you; each follow request will need approval. Learn more.
  • Your Tweets will only be visible to users you’ve approved.
  • Others will not be able to retweet or quote your Tweets.
  • Protected Tweets will not appear in Google search; protected Tweets will only be searchable on Twitter by the account holder and approved followers.
  • @Replies you send to people who aren’t following you will not be seen by those users (because you have not given them permission to see your Tweets).
  • You cannot share permanent links to your Tweets with anyone other than your approved followers.

For the exercise, we took the following steps:

  • Created numerous fake protected accounts for the simulation cell and for the participants (we also had to create new Google accounts to provide an email address);
  • We ensured all pre-created protected accounts followed each other;
  • Other approved exercise participants were allowed to follow the accounts at the start of the exercise;
  • Content was developed in advance and pre-scheduled based on the exercise timeline, however, the simulation cell followed the stream and interacted with the participants in order to push them to achieve the desired outcome.

There are some pros and cons to using protected Twitter accounts versus a simulated Twitter environment, or unprotected accounts:


  • Real Twitter user-interface
  • Users saw their own stream as well as exercise content, which added realism
  • People did not have to be re-trained on how to use the platform
  • Content never was accidentally released into the agency’s real stream.


  • Cannot ReTweet a protected Tweet
  • If exercise participants (other than those designated to interact with the stream) wanted to see the content they had to have their own Twitter account. They were also reminded to “view only”.

Closed Facebook Groups

Facebook was actually quite easy to use in a closed environment because closed groups are fairly common. To take full advantage of this feature, we did the following:

  • Created a closed group and invited designated participants via email;
  • Wrote content in advance and populated the page based on the scenario timeline. As with Twitter,  the sim-cell interacted with the participants “live” in order to provide realism to the exercise environment.


  • Real Facebook user-interface
  • People did not have to be re-trained on how to use the platform
  • Content could not accidentally be released into the agency’s real stream.
  • Content posted in a closed group does NOT show up on the user’s personal/public timeline.


  • If an exercise participant wanted to view the content they had to have their own personal Facebook account.
  • Fake Facebook accounts are not as easy to establish, so the sim-cell also used their own personal accounts.  By doing this, however, the timeline of the FB page can look a little lop-sided and less realistic. For large exercises, this issue could be addressed by simply adding the entire sim-cell team for the exercise to the FB Group and asking them to post pre-scripted content.


A common complaint of exercise participants is that they get lost in the scenario. Scenario-time jumps and fast paced injects can mean that participants are aware of their own ESF actions, but often don’t have the situational awareness provided during real events by news and social media, which is often displayed in EOCs on large screens. In order to help address this issue, we utilized a blog site as a hub for all information. (I should note that during the exercise we also used a Flickr stream to broadcast to the EOC over 500 scenario-specific images, displayed multiple YouTube videos we created to portray the scenario, and provided text messages with scenario weather information and updates directly to everyone’s cell phone.)

The blog site was open to anyone who knew the URL, but we did limit the site visibility by selecting the option available in to discourage search engines from indexing the site.  We did not have any issues regarding information getting released to the public or news media.

We did the following:

  • An exercise-specific blog served as a foundation for the exercise for everyone to view the situation manual and other relevant documents including maps, etc.
  • During the exercise, participants were encouraged to use the blog to post content they were developing including press releases, updates from their ESF (e.g. road closures), shelter locations, etc.


  • Served as the main site for “exercise” situational awareness. Allowed everyone to understand what was happening on the timeline.


  • Developing content for a blog can be much more time consuming than writing Tweets and Facebook posts since stories versus sentences have to be developed. However, it should be noted, news stories from real-world disaster events make great starting points.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone interested in using social during their next exercise. If you have any questions, please, let me know.

Reach Your Audience in an Emergency: #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Flooding was rampant yesterday for what seemed like half the country. Social Media was buzzing with images, safety tips and information about the event as it continued to get increasingly worse as the day wore on and the rain seemed unending.

Using social networks to communicate emergency, safety and preparedness information has now, in 2014, become a standard operating procedure for quite a few emergency management and response organizations. As with any standard procedure, each event can provide an opportunity to understand how to improve and adjust. As a person on the receiving end of the information stream yesterday, I noticed three things that could be improved upon.

1.  Ensure posts are “Mobile Ready”

On a day where the situation is changing rapidly, as it does with flooding, people will be looking for information anywhere they can get it. It is important to keep in mind that there is a high likelihood that those searches will be occurring on a mobile device. According to the Pew Research Center The growing ubiquity of cell phones, especially the rise of smartphones, has made social networking just a finger tap away.  Fully 40% of cell phone owners use a social networking site on their phone, and 28% do so on a typical day.” Of course, the deluge we experienced yesterday was anything but typical, so that percentage was more than likely much higher.

With this in mind, when posting content about road closures, for instance, make sure the user does not have to go to another site to get the information, as seen in this Facebook.

“[County X DPW reports] eight (8) roads closed as of 6:00 a.m. this morning. Crews working to re-open all roads today. For complete list of road closures visit: http://YouCan’”

There were only 8 roads closed–why not list them all? If you are using a micro-blogging site, such as Twitter, that won’t allow listing all roads in one post–do 8 separate posts.

2. Use Images to Make Your Point

A warning about the dangers of driving through standing water is good, such as the one below.

“A reminder to motorist; please watch for standing water this morning during morning commute. Do NOT drive through standing water.”

However, a picture of a water rescues or a stranded vehicle might be more of a deterrent.

3. Reinforce Where Citizens Can Find Information–On Every Platform

FT_13.10.16_GettingNews2There are many ways communities can reach their citizens with emergency information: a website, reserve calls, social media, door-to-door (if necessary). It is important to keep in mind that no single source will reach all of your citizens. Younger people may search social media for news and information (as shown by the Pew Research Center results) and older individuals might not ever look at your website.

However, linking and reinforcing all of those information outlets is important because you do not know where the citizen will start their search. I’ll use my own community as an example. Quite a few cities and counties have the service that allows them to call citizens on home phones or cell phones to provide updates about the situation. In my community, the call yesterday ended with a note to call the “Hotline” for more information. Unfortunately, there was no mention of their own social media sites that were up and running and providing vital emergency information and regular updates.  A quick visit to the county website also yielded disappointing results–there was no mention of the emergency at all and no easy way to navigate to current information. When choosing the “Facebook” link on the homepage, their emergency management page is not even on the list.


In terms of providing information to citizens via social networking the emergency management community does seem to “get it.”  We are now in a position to tweak and refine our processes in order to best serve our communities versus debate whether or not these are useful tools. That’s a good thing. Let me know, what lessons have you learned from recent experiences?

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: Atlanta Public School’s Long Snow Day

Post by: Kim Stephens

large_12197276904We had a light dusting of snow last night and schools are closed today in my county. I’m guessing there are some officials in Atlanta wishing they had made the same decision yesterday before snow and ice paralyzed the city‘s roadways. Although they tried to dismiss school early the traffic was so horrific some buses were unable to get children home and instead had to return them to school. Parents who normally pick up their children were stuck in traffic eerily reminiscent of scenes from the Atlanta-based series The Walking Dead. A shelter-in-place order was issued after 10:00 pm last night and about 452 staff and students spent the night in several different ATL public school buildings.

This situation could be any public communicator’s nightmare scenario. However, the Atlanta Public School’s communications team provided a master class in emergency information dissemination, mainly through their @apsupdate (or Atlanta Public Schools Update) Twitter account. Here are a few things they did well.

1. Addressed parents questions and concerns directly

I have heard quite a few communicators debate whether or not they should address direct questions since it could overwhelm staff and bog down the message they are trying to convey. However, in this situation, the decision to address each person was the only logical choice–ignoring parents’ questions could have been its own disaster.

2.  Addressed rumors–immediately

It is a good/best practice to directly address people that are disgruntled or spreading half-true information. The Tweet below demonstrates this tactic. It appears a couple of kids got into a kerfuffle at one of the sheltering schools and were escorted to the office. Once person stated on Twitter “…fights are breaking out!” The Tweet was outlandish and ATL Public School communicators pointed out that not only was the person incorrect, but were needlessly causing concern.

3. Communicated tirelessly

When children are kept in school buildings overnight without their parents I’m guessing not a lot of people are getting a good-night’s rest. This was true for the communications team as well. Indeed, the Twitter feed for the district was active all night, for example, at 2:00 a.m. they addressed an upset parent that was concerned about building security.

In the morning they addressed a high school student that said she was cold:

As the new day began, they addressed a flood of questions and sent out reminders that school was canceled.

4. Used multiple platforms and allowed venting

The school district used both Twitter and Facebook to post school closure and the shelter-in-place information. Not surprisingly, parents were a TAD upset that their children could not get home and were quite unrestrained in their comments, especially on Facebook–calling for administrators to be held accountable, etc. It appears some Facebook comments may have been deleted by the district, however, that mistake was acknowledged or at least addressed. This interaction occurred on their page:

  • Yup. They deleted one of my comments which was not irate, no bad language, nothing. I simply called out the truth – they did not take our children, teachers or parents safety into consideration at all.
  •  Atlanta Public Schools Dana McElwee Carnahan we rarely, if ever delete posts. We value social media and interaction and maintain a robust FB and Twitter presence. Feel free to post again.
5. Social Media is integrated into their Website and Blog
Screenshot 2014-01-29 09.49.29Although the decision to incorporate social media posts into their blog and website was done well before the storm, it certainly can pay dividends during a disaster or emergency.  Websites are still one of the most popular go-to resources for community members: not everyone engages on social media (shocking, I know).  Integration, however,  provides an opportunity for non-social media users to read real-time interactions during the height of the event and participate if they are interested. By prominently displaying these feeds it also reminds community members that their social accounts are active.
Although the Atlanta Public Schools decision-making process regarding closures will probably be questioned in the months to come, the communications team should be praised for their very hard work during this event (which is still ongoing at time of writing).  Not only did they step up during the storm to provide parents and community members with the latest information, they were obviously prepared to do so by having systems and processes in place.  That level of advanced planning is truly a lesson worth noting.

Deaf People Use Social Media to Make Their Voices Heard: Can #SMEM be used to reach them in a crisis?

Guest Post by: Dr. Steph Jo Kent

News about the #fakeinterpreter for Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service worsened daily: from grotesque incompetence to mental illness to a potential record of violent crime. If ever there was a cautionary tale for emergency management, this is it. Are you wondering “how such a spectacular mistake could have been made“?


Before the latest horrifying turn, sign language interpreters and members of the Deaf community were already beginning to emerge from the first waves of disappointment, anger, and humiliation. One man’s audacity, and what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward providing real communication access, drew the lightning bolt flash of long pent-up Deaf frustration. Cathy Heffernan, writing for The Guardianpresents the background:

“Bad interpretation is surprisingly common and something that deaf people who use interpreters face on a regular basis. Across public services and the courts unqualified people are asked to translate, even in situations where clear communication can make the difference between life or death.”

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf established a Task Force in 2009 to begin drafting an official position paper and process for integrating qualified sign language interpreters into all stages of the emergency management cycle: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. Overtures to establish Emergency Management Interpreter Strike Teams have been made to responsible agencies and managers at many levels of government. Some jurisdictions have taken this seriously, most however have not. (See the Getting Real II Presentation for information on foundations laid in California, Georgia, and Florida.)

Commentary from Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, Director of Jewish Deaf Multimedia

Deaf people were frustrated two years ago by the hearing world’s exoticizing of Lydia Callis interpreting Hurricane Sandy public safety information for New York Governor Bloomberg. Rather than being understood as doing a competent job being the communication bridge between Hearing public officials and the Deaf public, she was glorified as a sign language star. Now we have Thamsanqa Jantjie at the opposite extreme.

“It is not just that Deaf people were left to decipher a mumble-jumble of random signs; it also serves as a message to the Deaf community that the world still does not understand us. For if the people responsible for hiring that interpreter would have had a better understanding of sign language and Deaf culture, they probably would have seen through his fraud.” ~ Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff

This travesty of failed communication heightens the responsibility of public officials to plan for and streamline the use of emergency management interpreters in all the settings where they may be needed. It also signals the growing presence of Deaf people in the mainstream.

An explanatory video from a Deaf South African, captioned (roughly) into English, describes how South Africans used Twitter to bring their complaint to the world’s attention. Messages spread on Facebook, as interpreters and Deaf community members in the UK tracked radio and television news reports. Now that the Deaf community has discovered Twitter, there are opportunities for Social Media and Emergency Management (#SMEM) to become more effective in communicating public warnings to the Deaf. A special hashtag was discussed a few years ago as a way to alert the Deaf to emergency situations. The proposed hashtag, #DEMX, stands for Deaf EMergency X. It hasn’t yet gotten traction but as the severity of seasonal storm cycles worsen, and the rate of unseasonal natural weather disasters increases, this may be an idea whose time has come.

Also see: The Deaf World is Watching. Will We Respond?

Information Design: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Post by: Kim Stephens

Looking back on the year, there was one  article that stood out because of its clear use of graphics and imagery to communicate risk information. During the summer of 2013, the Washington Post published a short online report about the hazards at the Potomac River Gorge titled “The Perils at Great Falls.” This spot in the river is a deadly place where 27 people have died since 2001.  Standing on the banks, it looks deceptively calm, but it is what people don’t see on the surface that can kill–erratic currents, jagged cracks, potholes and uneven terrain can trap swimmers.  The article explained those hazards with imagery that eliminated the need to read even one word.  Some commented that the piece was the definition of information design: “…the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it.”  (Wikipedia)

Screenshot 2013-12-12 08.32.32

Each of the major hazards in the river were given a graphical representation. In the image above the person is shown fishing off the bank: water rises rapidly and unexpectedly, sweeping him away. I have captured a screenshot, but the original graphic is animated.

The image below shows hazards beneath the water and on the banks–cliffs that tempt people to jump in, and varied terrain underwater that can kill if you dive in the wrong spot.

Screenshot 2013-12-12 08.33.08

The Dreaded Fact Sheet
Too often,  in the world of emergency management, images are occasionally included–if one can be dredged up, but they are usually not the focus of the message delivery. Below is a typical “dangers of [insert-risk-here]” pdf’d fact sheet intended for general public consumption. One glance and I can tell you how many people have read it..not many. I understand why this happens. There is a concern that if information is boiled down to just a few words and images, then that one key item will be left out. This begs the question: how effective are long and involved explanations if the intended audience won’t take the time to read them?

Screenshot 2013-12-12 09.03.40

 Images and Social Media

Luckily, communicating with the public has gotten easier–almost everyone is connected to the internet (81%) and a large portion of our audience  has smart phones in their pockets (over 60% as of July, 2013). Yet, I still see some EMA websites with risk information readily available–as long as you download the pdf.

However, as emergency management organizations become more comfortable with social media communications,  some have adopted the culture that includes heavy use of imagery.  Pinterest, for instance, is a great example of a social platform almost solely devoted to communicating via images. As an example, here’s the same “flood-water-can-be-dangerous message” on the Maryland Emergency Management Agency’s Pinterest page.

Screenshot 2013-12-12 09.27.41

Twitter, surprisingly, is also a social platform where the use of images is key to building audiences and engagement. Recently the company added inline viewing of pictures and video, making it yet another social network where the image is king. In fact, according to Bufferapp, research even prior to this change showed that Tweets using links were 94% more likely to be Retweeted. Data analysis also suggests that Tweets with images also are more likely to receive clicks in the first place.

Following my own advice, I will keep this short, but for 2014 I think the trend of communicating risk and preparedness information to the public by using images and graphics will continue to be vital.  We have to present information in a way that our audiences want to receive it, not in the way that is most convenient–even if uploading a PDF is handy.

What do you think?

Social Networking Trends of 2013 and Implications for #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

December is a month of reflection and I, along with Patrice Cloutier and James Garrow are using our blogs to highlight interesting  social media and emergency management trends from the year and note future possibilities for improvement. 2013 could be seen as a pivot point for quite a few organizations: social networking graduated from being novel and experimental, to just one of the tools in the communication’s toolbox. That being said, however, we still have a long way to go before full integration is realized throughout the response community.

Social Networks: The Stats 

We’ve all seen the statistics–social networks have millions and millions of users, except Facebook which sits at 1.11 billion. A deeper look at these stats, however,  can help create a more informed communication’s strategy, for instance,  is this the year to get G+ and Pinterest accounts? Here are a few noteworthy stats I’ve collected from a variety of sources, along with some possible implications.

  • Twitter boasts over 500 millions users, but one interesting note is what these users are talking about. According to Nielsen, 33% of Twitter users tweet about television shows. Implication:   Why not schedule tweets that appear during shows that discuss disasters with links to information about how people can prepare–or where they could turn for help if that type of event happened in their community? If you are uncomfortable promoting a show that you did not create and have no quality control over, then simply add qualifiers, or correct misinformation, if necessary.

  • Research by Pew finds that Twitter news consumers are younger, access content via mobile devices and are more educated than the general population: 45%, of Twitter news consumers are 18-29 years old, compared to 34% for Facebook.  What this stat excludes, however, is the role the news media plays in relaying Twitter content  from both citizens on the scene and response organizations. Therefore, I’d argue that everyone receives their news via Twitter.  The recent New York train derailment is a case in point. See this interaction:

The Boston Police Department understood, in the aftermath of the Marathon Bombing, that posting relevant, timely content to social media was the equivalent of an old-fashioned press release–but much more immediate. Television news organizations literally read BPD tweets to their audiences seconds after they were posted. Implication: Processes need to be in place to post content as quickly as it can be vetted.

  • YouTube reaches more adults 18-34 than any cable network and increasingly, these consumers are watching that content on mobile devices. Youtube boasts more than one billion views a day. Implication: Get out your camera.  (See Patrice’s post today on this topic, see also my post here about Missouri’s YouTube channel.) If you don’t have the resources to create your own videos, then repurpose content created by others. My absolute favorite preparedness/safety video from this year was created by State Farm Insurance with the actors from Duck Dynasty.

Screenshot 2013-12-04 09.48.33

  • According to Nielsen, Pinterest had a 1047% year over year change rate in the number of users, and  80% of those users are women. What are they pinning?  Content relates mostly to food/ recipes and clothing.  However, public agencies have made some in-roads. The CDC, which has always been a leader in social networking, has over 2000 followers on their page. Implication: If you decide to use this site, know your audience–after all, women are probably the ones getting the preparedness kit together!
  • And lastly, Google + had a banner year and according to SearchMetrics social sharing on G+ will surpass Facebook by 2016.  Screenshot 2013-12-04 10.11.41The power of Google itself seems to be at play here. For instance, I’ve noticed when searching news events, Google will display relevant content from G+ in an interactive sidebar. Early adopters to the platform, such as the American Red Cross, are doing well. The ARC has 274, 751 people following their page. Implication: Don’t put all your eggs in the Facebook basket!

It will be interesting to see who the big winners are next year, but social networking as a whole has proven, once again, that it is not just a passing fad. Is there an interesting stat I missed? Let me know!

Curious about the best use of crowdsourcing? Read this report.

Post by: Kim Stephens

crowdsourcingCrowdsourcing for disaster response and recovery has been a hot topic since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In fact, Google the term “Haiti earthquake crowdsourcing” and you’ll get 132,000 results.  But, mention the word to local or state emergency managers and you are likely to elicit instant anxiety: How can the crowd be utilized without overwhelming “official” responders? Dr. Patrick Meier recently described this fear on his blog iRevolution:

While the majority of emergency management centers do not create the demand for crowdsourced crisis information, members of the public are increasingly demanding that said responders monitor social media for “emergency posts”. But most responders fear that opening up social media as a crisis communication channel with the public will result in an unmanageable flood of requests…

At the Federal level, however, crowdsourcing is not only familiar–it has recently been embraced very publicly by FEMA. For instance, they used the power of the crowd during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to help review images of damage.

The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) were taking over 35,000 GPS-tagged images in fly-overs of damage-affected areas. This was performed as part of their mandate to provide aerial photographs for disaster assessment and response agencies, primarily to FEMA, who used the aggregate geolocated data for situational awareness. The scale of the destruction meant that there was a relatively large amount of photographs for a single disaster. As a result, it was the first time that CAP and FEMA used distributed third-party information processing for the damage assessment. (source:

Just this summer, FEMA added a new feature to their mobile application that also is considered crowdsourcing. The app includes the ability for people to submit images of damage, which are then aggregated and placed on a publicly available map.  Their efforts have received quite a lot of media attention–see: FEMA App Adds Crowdsourcing for Disaster Relief.

However, when talking about crowdsourcing, I often find that it is important to break how the crowd is utilized into categories: the FEMA examples above describe two very different uses of the crowd based on two different objectives.  A great new report by the IBM Center for The Business of Government by Dr. Daren C. Brabham, of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, finds that there are actually four categories of crowdsouring, and the type chosen should be dependent upon the desired outcome.   The report isn’t specific to emergency management, but it does mention some familiar programs, such as the USGS: “Did you feel it?”

Below is their summary. You can downloaded the report here: Using Crowdsourcing In Government.

The growing interest in “engaging the crowd” to identify or develop innovative solutions to public problems has been inspired by similar efforts in the commercial world.  There, crowdsourcing has been successfully used to design innovative consumer products or solve complex scientific problems, ranging from custom-designed T-shirts to mapping genetic DNA strands.

The Obama administration, as well as many state and local governments, have been adapting these crowdsourcing techniques with some success.  This report provides a strategic view of crowdsourcing and identifies four specific types:

  • Type 1:  Knowledge Discovery and Management. Collecting knowledge reported by an on-line community, such as the reporting of earth tremors or potholes to a central source.
  • Type 2:  Distributed Human Intelligence Tasking. Distributing “micro-tasks” that require human intelligence to solve, such as transcribing handwritten historical documents into electronic files.
  • Type 3:  Broadcast Search. Broadcasting a problem-solving challenge widely on the internet and providing an award for solution, such as NASA’s prize for an algorithm to predict solar flares
  • Type 4:  Peer-Vetted Creative Production. Creating peer-vetted solutions, where an on-line community both proposes possible solutions and is empowered to collectively choose among the solutions.

By understanding the different types, which require different approaches, public managers will have a better chance of success.  Dr. Brabham focuses on the strategic design process rather than on the specific technical tools that can be used for crowdsourcing.  He sets forth ten emerging best practices for implementing a crowdsourcing initiative.

What do you think? Is your organization interested in using crowdsourcing anytime soon? Which category would best fit your desired objectives?