Tag Archives: Emergency Alert System

More Research on Boston Marathon Official Twitter Activity #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Project Hazards Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication (HEROIC)* has posted two more reports that describe their research around the use of Twitter by public safety organizations during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing (see the complete citation at the end of this post).  You can read them in their entirety by clicking the hyperlinked titles and then choosing “Research Highlights.”

Below, I briefly describe both of these reports and provide the most significant findings.

Emergency services working after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings

Emergency services working after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings

 Micro-structure in Broadcasting Messages

The Microstructure report reviews  “conversational microstructures.”  They specifically examined whether or not Federal, State or local entities took part in or were the focus of the conversation on Twitter.  For the purposes of the study,  conversational Tweets were identified if they included a hyperlink, a hashtag, an @ message  or were ReTweeted, each of which  “…signify varying dimensions of online engagement…. Aspects of conversational microstructure use are of interest because they provide insights into which Twitter messages are amplified and why.”


By studying the data in a systematic fashion (which they describe) they found something very interesting regarding the use of hashtags–by now a common item  in public Tweets, especially for advance notice events.  They discovered that even though this crisis lasted a week, there was NOT a consistent use of one particular hashtag by public safety organizations. They state:

While there were a series of events throughout the week, including the detonation of improvised explosive devices at the beginning of the week, the killing of a police officer at MIT, and the lockdowns of Boston and Watertown, there was no indication that a consistent hashtag emerged or trended among official organizations to organize their content into a traceable stream.

That finding, in my opinion, can be turned into a simple take-away lesson:  agencies that are part of the Joint Information System should immediately determine which hashtags will be used throughout an event to ensure the broadest possible message distribution (of note, the public initially used the tag #BostonMarathon, which was rarely used by public safety organizations). Furthermore, this could have easily been something decided upon when planning for the marathon. The researchers note:

Hashtags that were utilized varied by sector, such as #tweetfromthebeat, #WANTED, and #CommunityAlert by law enforcement, and #oneboston from local government, indicating different aspects of the response.  However, a single hashtag, related to the weeklong investigation and subsequent manhunt and capture, did not emerge.

800px-Scenes_and_approximate_times_of_events_of_April_18-19Tweeting What Matters

Increasingly there are a variety of systems or channels in place to notify the public about what protective action measures they should take before, during or immediately following a crisis event. These systems include everything from the Emergency Alert System–which should reach almost everyone, to targeted text messages from local Universities,  to reverse phone calls from local government, to opt-in mobile applications from the State, etc., all of which were used at some point during the manhunt stage of the crisis. The Project HEROIC report, however, specifically examined Tweets that were posted that contained guidance  to  shelter-in-place, therefore “discussing the role of Twitter as a redundant channel for risk communications.”


Interestingly, they found that during the immediate aftermath of the bombing (on Monday) there were not a lot of official Tweets providing direction to the public. They speculate why: “…few [protective action] guidance-related tweets were posted, possibly signifying the lack of certainty about the event, the speed at which it unfolded, and having little information regarding what people should do in response.  However, at the end of the week, guidance tweets became more prevalent and focused on sheltering in place.”

They found that during the manhunt stage of the event Twitter was “definitely” used as a redundant channel to provide protective action guidance to the public; however, the public did not necessary repeat (ReTweet) these message as much as other content posted by official organizations. Again, this finding required the researchers  to speculate. They conclude that since the information about the protective action measure was provided  in so many different formats, it is quite possible that people did not feel the information required repeating–particularly not during the day once it was widely distributed and repeated on all forms of media.

Mission Hill Capture Celebrations

Mission Hill Capture Celebrations

The take-aways for the researchers:

“With this in mind, it is becoming prudent for organizations to consider the kinds of information that is most desired by an online audience, at different points in time, and for different sectors of the public.

Messages can be crafted for both locally affected community members in need of advisories and guidance, as well as distant observers intent on serving as information conduits.  Future disaster communicators ought to learn from these detailed observations about public retweeting practices in order to determine how to more effectively focus, shape, and share messages that make a difference.”

Let me know what you think. Does their analysis fit with your own experience?


Sutton, J., Johnson, B.,  Spiro, E.,  and Butts, C. (2013). “Tweeting What Matters: Information, Advisories, and Alerts Following the Boston Marathon Events.” Online Research Highlight. http://heroicproject.org

Sutton, J., Spiro, E., Johnson, B., Fitzhugh, S., and Butts, C. (2013). “Tweeting Boston: The Influence of Microstructure in Broadcasting Messages through Twitter.” Online Research Highlight. http://heroicproject.org

**Project HEROIC is a collaborative, NSF funded effort by researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of California-Irvine to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events.

The Evolution of Public Warning: From Paul Revere to Social Media

Guest Post by: James Hamilton aka @Disaster_Guy

Listen, my children, and you shall hear….Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

For many Emergency Managers, the term “public warning” may conger thoughts of the Emergency Alert System and sirens.  Although highly valuable components of a comprehensive warning program, we must question the effectiveness of these warning methods in modern culture both in terms of reaching our target population as well as achieving the desired result of motivating those individuals to take appropriate protective actions. Can we leverage other new technology platforms to trigger “old tech” public response?
The Emergency Alert System (EAS), in its traditional capacity, relies on mainstream broadcasters (radio and television), to deliver an audio message to the public to provide warning of a potential threat as well as recommended protective actions. While EAS fills a very large and critical role in warning the public of such events, there are several factors that limit its reach and effectiveness. In modern culture, many individuals no longer turn to traditional broadcast media for information or entertainment. They may be viewing network programming via DirecTV, listening to XM Radio, watching programming via Hulu, or keeping up with friends on a social network such as Twitter or Facebook. Although some of these voids may be filled through the development of the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) many of the benefits that will hopefully be gained through IPAWS implementation will realistically take quite a long time to materialize.
So, as Longfellow lays out his (at times historically inaccurate) tale of Paul Revere, what can we learn from this very simple public warning campaign carried out by a patriot over two-hundred years ago? Let’s spend a moment to examine Revere’s version of an emergency notification system. As part of the Sons of Liberty, Revere and others monitored the movements of the British “regular army” and devised a plan to warn those in Concord and Lexington of any advancement the army made. On April 18, 1775 the army began to cross the Charles River and their plans were put into action.

The sexton of the Old North Church hung two lanterns from the steeple to provide a visual warning to Charlestown located on the opposite shore that troops were advancing by river. Although not intended to be a primary method of warning, this was done in the event that riders were captured and unable to reach their destinations. As Revere set off on horseback directly over the river to Lexington via Charlestown, William Dawes took off for Lexington on a longer route. Both riders stopped at various points along their route warning others who in turn set out on horseback to carry the word. It is said that as many as forty riders from throughout the county joined the effort further spreading the message.

As we can see from a brief look at the events of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty realized something about delivering a warning that we frequently forget or underestimate today: to ensure effective warning and an effective response, we must ensure that our delivery paths include redundancy, diversification, and amplification.

Fearing capture, redundancy was achieved by these patriots as they took two different routes to Lexington. They also ensured further redundancy, in the event that they would both be captured, by diversifying their warning method to include a visual warning by lantern to Charlestown. Finally, and perhaps the most highly successful, they amplified the message by stopping along their route and warning others who in turn warned their neighbors and then carried the message further.

As Emergency Managers, we have many tools available to us to achieve the same type of redundancy, diversification, and amplification that Revere, et al. employed. We must continue to embrace traditional warning concepts such as EAS and warning sirens, however, they are only one piece of the puzzle and have significant limitations. A couple of things to consider:

  • For a mobile population we must also offer opt-in services that allow for messages to be received via email, telephone, and SMS text message.
  • Ensuring that each of these warning platforms is fully compliant with the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) will ensure, among other things, that they can take advantage of additional distribution paths that will be available exclusively through the new IPAWS program such as Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) that utilizes Cell Broadcast technology and integration with the National Weather Service’s NOAA Weather Wire and NOAA Weather Radio services.
  • If efficiently specified, procured and designed, each of the separate systems utilizing open CAP standards can independently trigger the rest. This allows an Emergency Manager or his authorized representative to initiate a warning message through a single system yet have that message broadcast over multiple platforms and mediums.

The final warning component that I would like to focus on, however, is message amplification. Revere and cohorts achieved this by stopping at homes and adding additional riders to spread the word.  Today, emergency managers can significantly leverage the population to further disseminate warnings. In fact, the public will do this whether you ask them to or not. What you can do however is provide them the message via a medium that simplifies that process.  By utilizing social media services such as Twitter and Facebook, you can place your warning message into the public domain. Both of these services make it very easy for users to further share information that they receive. In the case of Twitter, a user can simply click a “re-tweet” button to further spread your message to all of their followers.  The same is true of Facebook’s “Share” button thus spreading your message to all of their friends.  In the social media world, when content spreads from person to person it is known to be “viral”. Yes even in a pandemic, warning messages spreading virally is highly desirable to achieve.

Increasingly, people look to confirm information regarding a threat from multiple sources.  By diversifying and amplifying your warning message you can increase the chance that your citizens will see your message via multiple different outlets thus providing that level of confirmation and assurance regarding the validity of the threat and the need to take prescribed protective measures.  The same is true when your message is being shared with them by a friend through a social network. With a little luck by placing this information into the social stream you can also create relatively easy to track intelligence regarding the emergency, however, that is a subject for a different day.

So, what can we do to facilitate the “new old way” of warning?

  1. Embrace every distribution avenue possible: especially ones that are free and relatively simple to implement.
  2. Keep in mind that the public is a message carrier and not just a message recipient.
  3. Encourage integration with existing systems. Talk to the vendors that supply emergency notification systems such as EAS Gateways and Mass Notification Systems and ask them if their systems integrate with the Application Programming Interfaces for social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. If you are a large jurisdiction, consider writing the requirement to directly interface to these and other social networks into your RFP’s.
  4. Finally and most importantly, remember that there is no single way to warn the public of an emergency and if you are not using every platform at your disposal you are missing critical portions of your population.