Tag Archives: Cheryl Bledsoe

What is a Virtual Operations Support Team?

Guest Post: Scott Reuter

I’m fortunate to be working with a group of #SMEM*  friends who like to help each other during disasters. We train on real disasters as well as live non-disaster events, such as conferences and fast-moving popular events, so that we can test new social media tools and techniques. We do this to learn for our own varied emergency needs, and to share what we learn with others in order to contribute to the development of social media disaster operations in all phases of disasters. We call ourselves the “Virtual Operations Support Team“, or VOST for those who prefer acronyms.**

We are a diverse mix of professional emergency managers and disaster volunteers of varying skill levels with one major thing in common: an enthusiasm for learning how to use social media in disasters, and for developing ways to operate that will make things easier for ourselves and others in future disasters. We like to share what we learn with others.

Here’s a quick definition of the VOST concept:

  • Virtual Operations Support (VOS) as applied to emergency management and disaster recovery is an effort to make use of new communication technologies and social media tools so that a team of trusted agents can lend support via the internet to those on-site who may otherwise be overwhelmed by the volume of data generated during a disaster.
  • VOS Teams (VOST) are activated to perform specific functions in support of affected organizations & jurisdictions. Each VOST has a Team Leader that reports directly to the affected organization/jursidiction.
  • As additional VOSTs are established, a VOS Group (VOSG) may be established to coordinate the work of the VOSTs to maintain an effective span of control. The VOSG has a Group Supervisor that reports to the affected organization/jurisdiction. The VOST Leaders report to the Group Supervisor.

VOST History

While many of us already knew each other and/or had worked other disasters together, we were first assembled  as a group by Jeff Phillips (@losranchosEM 0r @_JSPhillips) as a team of “trusted agents” in March of 2011. The idea is that in a disaster, anyone trying to monitor and respond using social media will be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of data that needs to be examined and sorted into useful information. In a catastrophic disaster this need is only amplified and there will also probably be a need for a predetermined, trusted person or group to search, proritize and forward crisis data from outside of the disaster location if the internet is not functioning or bandwidth is limited, or again, if the on-site personnel are overwhelmed by the amount of crisis data incoming.

Proof of Concept

1. SMEM Camp

SMEM Camp: Our first “proof of concept” effort (from now on I’ll call them instances) was set up in March 2011 by Jeff Phillips to support the “#SMEMCamp” panel at the NEMA Annual Conference.  I won’t spend a lot of time discussing this instance, as Jeff did a great explanation of it here. I will say , however, that in my view it was a great success in demonstrating that a group of volunteers well-versed in SMEM could be of great asistance to each other if they coordinate their efforts, and plan in advance to do so.

2. 140 Conference Northwest

Our next effort was in support of the 140 Conference Northwest, aka #140confNW, which was held in May in Vancouver, Washington. We were led in this instance by Cheryl Bledsoe (@CherylBle) of Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (@CRESA). The VOST members that were on-site worked to live-tweet the conference, communicate problems to the internet audience,  and help answer questions that were being asked via twitter as best we could. Some of our team were also helping from various locations around the country by monitoring the live stream and live tweets of the event, as well as search for relative material available on the internet. For example, if a conference speaker mentioned a website and one the on-site VOST members tweeted the info without a link, the off-site members found the URL, and then retweeted the info with the URL attached. The VOST also tweeted links to other supporting materials.

3. National VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference 

Our third VOST effort was for the social media panels at the National VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in Kansas City, MO.  Once again the team helped to find and share helpful information using twitter and facebook. Short-Term Disaster Recovery expert Bill Driscoll, Jr. of AllHands Volunteers  – now at NECHAMA – joined in the effort, video streaming the morning panel session on U-stream using his iPad. The VOST actually had a chance to help relay info as we were under tornado warning and had to go to the hotel basement to shelter-in place between the morning and afternoon social media panels!   Some VOAD conference attendees that had expressed uncertainty at the morning session saw us using social media to gather data in the basement, and came back to the afternoon session to learn more and get help setting up an account!

4. Hurricane Irene

English: Rainfall totals for Hurricane Irene (...

Image via Wikipedia

The fourth major #VOST instance was Hurricane Irene. While VOST has helped informally on smaller earthquakes, floods, wildfires and misc. smaller disasters, this was the first large instance where we operated as a VOST on a large scale disaster, combining efforts with other individuals and organizations who were assisting on the disaster. We helped to populate maps and lists with contacts and social media accounts for Emergency Managers and disaster authorities in areas that were expected to be affected that were in the projected path of the hurricane. We helped to amplify warnings and vital communications. One of our VOST members was in New York in the path of the Hurricane, and we stayed in contact with her and supported her local social media emergency effort.

5. Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon

The fifth VOST instance was the Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon. Jeff Phillips was contacted by Kris Eriksen of the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) who wanted to test the use of social media as part of informational support during the wildfire response. (there is a paper due out on that particular VOST effort soon, and I’ll get a link up for that as soon as it’s available.) VOST member Pascal Schuback set up the ORfireInfo blog,  I set up twitter & gmail accounts,  a shared dropbox file, a facebook account and a Keepstream social media curation account for saving relevant media articles. We did all of this for in order to keep the NIMO staff informed of what the media and citizens on twitter & Facebook were saying and asking in regards to the fire, and were able to respond to the public.

Jeff Phillips again organized and led the effort, put together the operational ICS204 document in which to seek instructions, log actions in support of the effort, and save useful information and resources where all VOST members could access them. The “#ORfire” Shadow Lake Fire VOST was 19 days of sustained operations working directly with NIMO staff. (I was travelling during this one and was able to test what it would be like to assist in VOST operations while traveling – even posting some fire updates via iPhone while on a crab expedition in Portland, Maine!) This was a long effort and many assisted on it including Jerry KoenigJoel Arnwine, and many others (apologies to all not mentioned – luckily there will be more papers on this VOST instance coming out shortly.)

6. January 2012 northwest floods 

The sixth VOST instance was in support of the January 2012 northwest floods and severe weather that affected Oregon. (Recovery efforts are ongoing.) In this instance, while we operated and shared crisis data during the flood event, the goal was to support not only response phase efforts, but also to assemble information that would support and streamline both short and long-term recovery phases of the disaster. VOST members located social media and conventional contacts for affected counties, started a map for locating hard hit areas as seen in media accounts, started a Storify media curation/archive, and saved useful info and resources so that Oregon VOAD***** could develop a plan for dealing with a multi-county flood recovery effort. (ongoing at the time of this writing.). This really has turned in to two efforts; one was the initial collection of all data by the VOST – and the subsequent attempt to engage ORVOAD members in the use of this collaborative tool for sharing information amongst themselves. One VOST member (@TheRedElm) even helped me with note-taking during a complex ORVOAD conference call with lots of attendees. We both worked on the notes in a collaborative Google doc.


Each of the above VOST instances really needs to have its own unique story told, but I wanted to get this out there before we get too far away from the early efforts to get the discussion started. People on the #SMEM hashtag have been wondering what #VOST is about, so I hope that provides a little of the background.

Applying the VOST concept to a disaster of catastrophic scale is not difficult to imagine. I see myself getting on site to my county EOC after a major earthquake, where I know I will only be able to process so much crisis data by myself or with a couple of helpers. But, if I am able to utilize a VOST  I could contact my trusted agents and ask for help in processing this data. (Some of us are discussing MOUs so that the VOST can self-deploy in case contact is not immediately possible.) Perhaps some people are trapped in their home, unable to make a voice call, but they can get a text message out via twitter, or a text message to someone who then posts it to facebook.  VOST members can search for these cries for help on twitter, and help to sift that data out and pass it on so that I can relay it to those who can help.


* We follow each other on twitter and gather on twitter; “#SMEM” is the hashtag for Social Media in Emergency Management – we also hold regular twitter chats on the #SMEMchat hashtag at 12:30EST every Friday – all are welcome!

** you will also occasionally see VOSG being used; this stands for “Virtual Operations Support Group” and is used when an “instance” – or operation – becomes big enough to require more people than can be managed; at that point one or more additional VOS Teams will be created, and the Teams will all be part of a VOSG, Or VOS Group, and will be managed following standard ICS guidelines.

*** I want to mention that I’ve been only been heavily engaged in social media use in disasters for about a year and a half now. That was about the time that I realized (by viewing the Red Cross Crisis Data Summit) how important social media was becoming in all phases of disaster. I’m sure that there are others that need to be acknowledged as innovators and originators in this work, but I’m basing this piece on what I know, so please feel free to fill in the back story in comments. I want to acknowledge both Jeff Phillips, and Heather Blanchard of Crisis Commons as the people that I first heard use the terms Virtual Operations Support” as applied to Emergency Management, and “DOC or digital operations center”.

**** a much more thorough academic study will soon be available on the Shadow Lake Fire “VIOS” (virtual information operations support) instance, and I also hope that others including Jeff Phillips, Cheryl Bledsoe and others will share their views on this and other VOST efforts.

***** ORVOAD is Oregon Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a group of faith-based and community service groups who assist those affected by disasters with long-term recovery.

LINKS to VOST Info & Resources:

Research about Communicating Risk becomes a Hard Reality: HardenUp.org

Post by: Kim Stephens


Image by P Shanks via Flickr

How do you create resilient communities?  It’s a tough question. Just yesterday I sent out a tweet about preparedness and the ubiquitous fact sheets that government agencies produce. Does anyone read them? If someone does read them, do they take action, e.g. prepare a  “go-kit,” or purchase insurance, etc.? Maybe, I mused, images of disasters would help encourage people to prepare. One of my colleagues @Cherylble (Cheryl Bledsoe)  answered “@Kim26stephens, you presume a natural interest in emergency management and I would tender ppl only interested if hazard is imminent #smem”.

An imminent hazard is certainly something that spurs action. Therefore, it would seem that if the public only knew and understood their risks (e.g. the frequency of hurricanes)  then they would take the necessary steps to mitigate those risks. But the research study “Communicating Actionable Risk for Terrorism and Other Hazards” – Michele M.Wood,1,∗ ,† Dennis S. Mileti et. al., published 10 June 2011,  found that it is much more important “… to emphasize the communication of preparedness actions (what to do about risk) rather than the risk itself.” They call this type of activity “communicating actionable risk“.  Another key finding, which is highly relevant in today’s connected world, was that “households in American are most likely to take steps to prepare themselves if they observe the preparations taken by others…”. I’m effectively boiling down an entire article to one paragraph so I suggest you read it,  however, it is interesting to note their conclusion:

“Communicating preparedness actions to motivate people to act is more direct than communicating risk and hoping that people will infer that they should take actions, and then, based on their inferences, act. This is a substantial departure from theoretical perspectivies and program practices that seek primarily to communicate risks so that people might, then, infer that action-taking is warranted.”

This research has been put into direct practice in Queensland Australia, an area of the world I seem to write about weekly. I am seriously in awe of the new website put together by Green Cross Australia in partnership with a veritable alphabet soup of government agencies, volunteer organizations, research institutions and even private industry called: “HardenUp: Protecting Queensland“. They do about a million things right here, but most importantly they do communicate actionable risk and then, from within the framework of the site, encourage people to share and promote their preparedness activities in a seamless manner.  As an aside, Green Cross Australia has a focus on climate change and helping people adapt to the potential changes that could occur, such as increased natural disasters and changing sea-level.

It’s not surprising that people will react if they see others preparing. If a storm is coming and I see my neighbor nailing up plywood on windows, I’m likely to think, “Hey, that looks like a good idea.”  However, how can we make more subtle preparedness activities visible and essentially social when there’s not a storm?  You guessed it: social media.  HardenUp offers multiple chances for citizens to share how they are preparing. When users create their plan (in a really nice interface, by they way) they are asked to post what they have done to their social network.

The “tips” section is also designed for sharing. It was envisioned, in part, as a way for people who lived through major disasters to communicate what they learned. In order to get the survivors input, however, some clarifying had to be done about the name of the site.

In a message to survivors, Jelenko Dragisic, CEO of Volunteering Qld and a HardenUp partner, stated that their intention for the website was definitely not to tell people who suffered losses from last year’s major flooding events to “Harden Up,” rather their intention was simply to communicate to the segment of the population that is not prepared. He also implored these survivors, who know the dangers all too well, to share their experiences.

 Many people think they can leave it up to insurance and government bodies and emergency organisations to come to their rescue, both literally and financially. Or they believe there’s nothing individuals can do when faces with a natural disaster. But those people are wrong…being prepared can make a hell of a difference. Knowing how to get out, having emergency supplies, being informed, really can be the difference between life and death…As people who’ve had direct experience of this, I invite you to share your stories with other Queenslanders.”

User-generated tips are also linked to social media to encourage peer engagement: visitors can view all of the tips and then click the “Like” button to instantly post their favorites it to their facebook page. Peer pressure is also subtly applied throughout their site, for example,  a “ticker” runs at the bottom of every page that states  the number of preparedness actions that have been taken to date: 10,530. I love the tag “What about you?” next to the number. In other words, according to a Green Cross representative, Jeremy Mansfield: “Harden-up is not about vulnerability, but a call to action to build self-resilience.”

Although preparedness is the goal, risk awareness is one of the objectives. The site designers have incorporated a database of over 150 years worth of community-based historical disaster data.  According to Jeremy:

One of the key differences of the site we feel is the ” Information asymmetry” providing people links to knowledge that contextualise  risks, preparedness/resilience and longer term issues around adaptation etc. We think it’s the first time a site has attempted to integrate 150 years of weather history along with regional climate history & trends served up at a suburb level.

I also really like how  “HardenUp” has been built to eventually become a one-stop shop for all emergency information. For example, the “In the event” Hub is turned on if there is a crisis and will house community and authority feeds and real-time maps. There is also a tab to search for volunteer opportunities.

I covet this site. I want one in my community, and I want to help build one for every state in the US. Am I being overly effusive?

Related Links

Bloggers collaborate to comment and expand on the SMEM camp report

Post by: Kim Stephens

Last March the first “Social Media for Emergency Management Camp” took place in conjunction with the mid-year NEMA conference in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. There were many objectives for the camp, but the overarching goal was simply to gather people together who were interested in discussing the impact social media and emerging technologies are having on the response community as a whole. Heather Blanchard, in a stroke of genius, recommended that we enlist the aid of a research team, led by Dr. Clarence Wardell of CNA’s office of Safety and Security, to document the effort.  CNA, is “a non-profit institution that conducts high-level, in-depth research and analysis to inform the important work of public sector decision makers”.

The team listened to our discussions as we organized the camp, captured the data from the camp itself (including tweets from actual and virtual participants), and then researched the topic in-depth, as evidenced by their 74 cited references.  The result of their effort is an in-depth analysis on the role of social media in the realm of emergency management and its potential as a transformative technology. The 46 page report is entitled: “2011 Social Media + Emergency Management Camp: Transforming the Response Enterprise“.

In the report, Dr. Wardell et al. outline three major findings from camp discussions and catalog six recommendations they felt would need to be implemented in order to close the gap between  the current state of social media usage for emergency management and the desired state. The authors do not necessarily identify who should be closing this gap–in some instances the “who” could refer to researchers (e.g. “establishing a baseline on social media usage via a survey of domestic EM agencies”); in other instances “who” could be the SMEM community itself.

There are several of us who blog about SMEM. We have created a collaboration to divide up each of these findings and recommendations and examine them in detail.  Look below to find links to these posts.

Three Key findings:

  1. Eric Holdeman (@Eric_holdeman),  of Emergency Management Magazine’s Disaster Zone, discusses “[T]he need—akin to FEMA’s whole community initiative—to redefine the domestic response enterprise to be more inclusive of all response stakeholders.”  
  2. Cheryl Bledsoe (@CherylBle) on sm4em.org takes on another finding: “The need to identify the relationships between system inputs and the effect of those relationships on the transformation of the response enterprise.”
  3. Gerald Baron on the Crisis Comm blog talks about “[T]he need to define future goals for a domestic response enterprise, particularly as it relates to the integration of new technologies and their associated effects.”
Six Recommendations:
Using social media for emergency response

Image by BC Gov Photos via Flickr

1. Jim Garrow (@jgarrow) at “The Face of the Matter”  talks about demonstrating value. The recommendation from the report states that we need to
“Expand prior work on social influences on citizen preparedness and response behavior to include the effect of social networks when coupled with various messaging strategies. Presumably, the ability to “view” the behavior of others in a given social network will have an effect on citizen decision-making beyond that of messages delivered through traditional media. Concrete data on the extent to which this is true and can be measured stand to bolster the case for increased investment.”
2. Bill Boyd (@chiefb2) at “It’s Not My Emergency” discusses the decidedly sexy topic of “Operational benefits” which is also related to demonstrating value. From the report, we need to
“Demonstrate the value of integrating social media into operations by capturing improvements in the speed and effectiveness of response. Such a demonstration is critical to gaining buy-in. One area where these improvements can potentially be seen most clearly is in real- time disaster relief routing and logistics decision-making. Information gathered through social media platforms could help lead to the development of a set of meaningful metrics as well.”
3. Patrice Cloutier tackles the recommendation that SM should be used more during exercises and real-world events. His post discusses the use of the medium in Canada and in recent events, including Hurricane Irene. The report recommendation states specifically:
“Continue efforts to integrate social media tools and data into response exercises.These efforts are critical not only to understanding the value of social media, but also to creating a level of comfort in their use by emergency managers. In addition, efforts to capture the role of social media and the response ofVTCs through post-event analysis and after-action reports should be funded and formalized before an event occurs.
4. I’m discussing the need for knowledge sharing and education.
“Make the continued creation and refinement of training and knowledge-sharing opportunities for emergency management practitioners a priority.The 2011 SMEM Camp format was an experiment that was well received by the majority of participants.”
The other two recommendations  include
  • “Baseline Establishment: Conduct a survey of domestic emergency management agencies to provide a baseline of social media and mobile technology capabilities (e.g., How many agencies in the United States are currently attempting to use social media tools, and of the ones that are, how are they using them?).” and
  • “Reliability and usefulness: Underlying the issue of social media’s value are issues of data reliability and usefulness. Determine thresholds for data corruption and general reliability in response, as defined through post-event analysis, because they are essential to obtaining the buy-in of leadership at all levels of government.”

Be sure to join the #smemchat today (11/11/2011) where we will discuss these findings and celebrate the one year anniversary of that tag on twitter. The tag has been a great place over the past year for the emergency management community to convene to debate this topic in-depth on a daily basis. Read Cheryl’s great post about the history of that hashtag.