Tag Archives: Federal Emergency Management Agency

Is Your Social Network Ready for a Disaster?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)  recently sponsored a Facebook app contest with the goal of  getting people to designate friends or family to be their lifeline after a disaster.  The concept was born out the notion that people already turn to their social networks in a crisis for support,  so why not create a way for folks to think about this before an event. The winning application is called bReddi and it is quite innovative: the developers not only integrate the concept of lifelines into the product, but they also promote personal preparedness activities, coupled with information about specific geographic risks and hazards.

There are 3 things I think they executed really well.

1. Buttons and Badges

Most government emergency management  websites contain information about how to prepare for a disaster presented as a list of items the citizen should accomplish. These lists are often static without anyway for the person to either track their progress, enter the information, or be rewarded once completed. This app, however, not only provides the all-important to-do list, but allows the user to type their content directly into the app and see their progress via a status bar of percent complete. For anyone who attended grade school, seeing a 0% on what looks like a report card strikes up not only a little fear, but a desire to make it go away. Once completed, users are rewarded with a badge to be proudly displayed on their Facebook page. The badge serves two  purposes, it alerts the user’s Facebook friends to the app and provides another incentive to finish.

2. Risk and hazard information is prominently featured.

Often, information about hazards is  divorced from information  about preparedness.  The bReddi app, however, connects the user to the hazards they could experience based on their  location–which is obtained from the Facebook profile. The home “dashboard” not only lists these potential hazards, but the content is linked to a live FEMA newsfeed. (This is actually a little bit of a criticism for me–I think it would be a bit better if the content came from more local sources, however, I understand that there were probably development constraints. Maybe V2 will provide this feature.) The “history” tab also provides a visualization of regional historical-disaster data for 8 different hazards: flood, tornado, fire, earthquake, hurricane, pandemic, terrorism, and volcanoes.

Historical and real-time disaster data is displayed on the home tab as well, which not only gives the user a personal “threat summary” but also illustrates the threat summary for favorite friends and the national average. Seeing a national average is not necessarily useful information, since a threat of fire in California does not threaten me here in Maryland, however, seeing the threat scale for  friends might provoke me to invite others to the app. For example, Bill Boyd, a fellow blogger, has a bit of yellow on his scale where mine was all green, prompting me to want to encourage him to prepare. (As a side note, Bill is a firefighter and already well prepared, I’m sure!) This illustrates how the developers considered the concept of shared responsibility: I see my friends are in danger, I can help them prepare by sharing this app…brilliant.

3.  Design

The entire app has a pleasing user interface, easy to understand graphics, and easily executable tasks. The content can also be taken offline by printing out a wallet-sized emergency info card.

One tiny criticism, I do wish they would explain to the user what is involved in being someone’s “lifeline.” What does that mean for the designee? What responsibilities does that entail? Although I think this information is explained on the companies’ website, it should be spelled out in the app itself more prominently.

I am now curious how local governments might take advantage of this app. Will you direct your citizens to it? Let me know.


Social Media in House DHS Appropriations Bill for 2013

Post by: Kim Stephens

English: Washington, DC, June 10, 2009 -- Mich...

English: Washington, DC, June 10, 2009 — Michael Moore and Mike McCormack train on video software at the first FEMA multimedia workshop at FEMA Headquarters. FEMA brought videographers into the training so they could learn new methods of story telling and keep up with the expansion of the use of social media tools. FEMA/Bill Koplitz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading the great post today in the National Journal about the Joplin 2011 Tornado, what really caught my eye, however, was this paragraph:

“If the House version of the bill appropriating FEMA’s budget for 2013 becomes law, Fugate will have to show that the agency has a plan for deploying social media. A provision requires FEMA to improve its ability to collect data in real time through social-media monitoring and messaging and directs the agency to produce a report on the utility of social media in disaster response.”

Whoa. I’m sure this is old news–I have been under a bit of a rock lately–meaning I’ve been traveling too much, but here is a link and the specific language from the Library of Congress :

“Real-time information gathering is critical in the wake of a natural disaster. Enabling first responders to utilize the most recent, up-to-date data is a key component to ensuring emergency response efforts. One way to collect real-time data is through the emergence of publicly available, social network messaging to provide insight into the aftermath of natural disasters. The Committee understands FEMA is examining ways in which to expand the application of this type of real-time data collection through social media as well as other uses of social media during disasters. As social media continues to become an even more powerful tool, the Committee directs DHS and FEMA to harness and apply these capabilities in support of its emergency management mission. The Committee directs the Administrator of FEMA to provide a report to the Committees on Appropriations of the Senate and the House detailing efforts to use social media in disaster response activities no later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act.”


The Automation Modernization account funds major information technology projects for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


The Committee recommends $58,048,000 for automation modernization, the amount requested under `Salaries and Expenses’ for the Office of the Chief Information Officer. Public Law 112-74 requires FEMA to submit to Congress a strategy for a comprehensive plan to automate and modernize their information systems. Using this plan and the information FEMA incorporated into the Office of Management and Budget’s `IT Dashboard,’ the Committee directs FEMA to fund all automation modernization programs from within this new appropriation. This new appropriation will facilitate better oversight of automation programs.

According to the `IT Dashboard’, FEMA has $271,700,000 in fiscal year 2013 for information technology, to include three programs classified as `major investment.’ However, the Committee is unable to identify how these programs are funded in the fiscal year 2013 budget. This new account will therefore provide the visibility needed in this area of investment. FEMA is encouraged to work with the Committee prior to the submission of the fiscal year 2014 budget request to delineate the specific programs and types of activities to include in this account.

Get those proposals ready!

Social Networks and Collaborative Resilience

Post by: Kim Stephens

Gloria Mark and Bryan Semaan in their 2008 study “Resilience in Collaboration: Technology as a Resource for New Patterns of Action”  found that in communities that have been disrupted (they focused on war zones) “technology played a major role in providing people with alternate resources to reconstruct, modify, and develop new routines, or patterns of action for work and socializing.”  Prophetically, they stated in their conclusion that they envision a system where people could simply give status updates regarding their well-being after a crisis.  Furthermore, they predicted crisismapping: “our data also point to the potential of utilizing collective intelligence in providing online information about the disrupted area. For example, people could collectively update a satellite map online with up-to-the minute information on local disruptions in their area.”

As Mark and Semaan indicated, resilience is defined as the ability to cope with an unexpected situation and “bounce back.” But… “new ways of using resources to be resilient [has] led to the emergence of new structures with consequences for work and social lives.” They provide several examples, for instance, in Iraq a University student video taped classes for friends who could not travel to campus after curfew: that practice became adopted and formalized by the institution.

Fast forward four years and we clearly see the  major role technology plays in fostering collective resilience. These “new structures” regarding how people communicate and collaborate have penetrated society–war zone or not. After a disaster,  information communication technologies that require very little, if any, actual technical skill have leveled the playing field regarding who can provide “information aid,” and have also allowed people to organize themselves in ways previously unimagined.  I’m not quite sure we in the emergency management community have fully grasped this impact nor have we adapted or adjusted our systems to take this into account .

For me, FEMA‘s use of the tool “Aid Matrix” provides an example of the disconnect.   AidMatrix is designed to match volunteers and donations with organizations who distribute those items. This software solution seems to be designed for mostly large corporate contributions, although citizens can contribute monetary donations to the list of “leading organizations in humanitarian relief”.  Regarding non-monetary donations, they state:

Please keep in mind that leading relief organizations typically seek sizable, bulk donations only when they meet the service delivery needs of a particular relief operation.

AidMatrix also allows for volunteers to match their skills  to organizations working in the impacted area… in theory. The portal, however, isn’t spun up for every event and I have heard complaints that even when it is used, it isn’t stood up quickly enough. People state that they find out about the tool around the time the event is over, see pic of the tweets from two people from the #SMEM (social media and emergency management) twitter community. Other concerns focus on the low rate of adoption and use. To my knowledge the portal is rarely, if ever used during events that do not meet the threshold for a disaster declaration.

 The recent April 16th tornado in Oklahoma also provides an illustration: searching the portal by state, the potential donor or volunteer receives the following message: “The Volunteer Portal is not currently active for Oklahoma“.  In contrast, the  Woodward Tornado Info (WTI) Facebook page most certainly is active, with over 2000 fans. The page is administered by Amber Wolanski, who also stood up the Joplin Tornado Information page. WTI was ready to go within hours of the event, no MOU or paperwork required. The community has utilized the collaborative space to post about needs of those impacted and even to broadcast information about a missing teen (unrelated to the tornado).

This type of Facebook page should no longer be news: this is the new normal. When there is a crisis people will stand up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to help match those with the desire to help with those in need. In the words of the scholars mentioned above, people are adapting existing technology to meet the pressing needs of the event.  Those of us in emergency management should embrace this newfound resilience, but how?  There are admitted limitations to matching needs to resources through a Facebook page. As a follow-up post I’m going to discuss one community-based, bottom-up donations management solution that was also born out of a tornado event. Stay tuned.

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. 

Still not convinced Social Media is important? Read Craig Fugate’s Testimony

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

Here is the link to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s written statement of his testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Repsonse and Communications. The stated topic was FEMA’s progress since the enactment of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) five years ago.

On page 7 he states the importance of social media and mobile communications:

“Looking to the emergency communications of the future, FEMA is also developing a next- generation infrastructure for alert and warning capabilities, known as PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network). Cell phones are data centers, capable of quickly accessing and storing a large amount of information. One of the major lessons we learned from the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was that even if the physical infrastructure of an area is completely destroyed, the cellular infrastructure may be able to bounce back quickly, allowing emergency managers to relay important disaster-related information and enabling the public to request help from local first responders. This new, free public safety system allows customers with an enabled mobile device to receive geographically targeted messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area whether nearby cell phone towers are jammed or not.

We are also expanding our use of social media tools. Social media is an important part of the Whole Community approach because it helps facilitate the vital two-way communication between emergency management agencies and the public, and it allows us to quickly and specifically share information with state, local, territorial, and tribal governments as well as the public. FEMA uses multiple social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach the public. Rather than asking the public to change the way they communicate to fit our system, we are adapting the way we do business to fit the way the public already communicates. We value social media tools not only because they allow us to send important disaster-related information to the people who need it, but also because they allow us to incorporate critical updates from the individuals who experience the on-the-ground reality of a disaster.”

Using Social Media to Aid Recovery

Puyallup, WA, February 9, 2009 -- Located at t...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The Social Media and Emergency Management chat last Friday, July 29 focused on SM and recovery and was moderated by Pascal Schuback, an emergency manager from a large county in Washington State. The transcript is 31 pages long–we were chatty.

My favorite question:  “Recovery is always a challenge to work prior to an event? How are we preparing tools/protocols/training & awareness before hand?” Of course this question is much broader than just the use of social media, and speaks to me about civic engagement in general. I think @tusnamisteph was correct in pointing us to the recent post by ICMA: “Can Social Media Reinvigorate Civic Participation?” Before a community has experienced a disaster it is sometimes difficult to get  in-the-flesh participation (unless, of course, the issues involves taxes–but that’s a different blog). Increasingly community leaders are turning to social networks, including online public forums, in order to gain input and insight from those they serve.

Social sites are important because most static city or county web pages provide very limited capability for engagement, e.g. “send an email” doesn’t allow for a conversation. (See this blog post by a local gov official in England-How digital tools can help connect a Mayor.) Even with these tools, however, the ICMA article points out how input is sometimes still limited to a few, very active individuals (maybe just a few more than normally show up in person).

But these same local governments need to be prepared for the marked increase in the level of input and desire to participate after a crisis.  This is where the “preparing tools” question is salient.  If your community is not using these tools before an event it will be more difficult to implement them afterwards–although not impossible.  Including citizen engagement, I see 3 ways web-enabled communications help in the recovery process.

1. Matching Needs with Resources

The town of Joplin (which recently suffered a historic tornado) provides a great example of how recovery is increasingly social. My favorite example, which I’ve mentioned before, is Rebuild Joplin. This site, which is designed as collaborative platform, lists as its partners the City of Joplin, Joplin Schools, and a multitude on non-governmental organizations. This list also reminds us that it’s really more about relationships than it is about the tool. Their stated goal: “...to support the long term recovery efforts of Joplin residents and businesses. This effort is strengthened by a collaborative approach. RebuildJoplin.org is a central location for finding six recommended local funds that are committed to the long term recovery of Joplin.”  Affected community members are not only able to quickly find access to donated resources but the FAQ tab is a literal one-stop-shop of information. People can find links and advise about all aspects of recovery from “Do I need to sort my debris?” to “What documents will FEMA need from my insurance?”.  For those wishing to donate, a list of community needs and reputable organizations are listed.

Rebuild Joplin also has a Facebook page with over 7,000 fans. Their presence is open, allowing anyone  to post to their page; the posts currently up are completely appropriate, involving information about donations or community recovery events.

The question for communities: Can you build this type of platform before an event? Some are people are trying to do just that, including Pascal Schuback, the chat moderator, who indicated that he is building a site using Ushahidi software. Another person, James Hamilton of Cecil County, Maryland, is looking into a Ushahidi deployment as well, and I’ve also heard rumors about something similar in Northern Virginia. Would these sites be publicly available pre-crisis? Pascal indicated that his would. I think if a site, similar to Rebuild Joplin, was able to list community needs as well as community resources everyday–people would use it and respond favorably. Site administration questions would need to be ironed out, however.

2. Gaining input from Citizens

Facebook has also played a small role in how the community is gaining information for its Citizen Advisory Recovery Team. After the in-person meeting announcements were put up on a local news organization’s FB page, people posted their comments straight to that site. These comments were mined and fed into the final draft. I wonder aloud why they didn’t ask for these comments on their own “City of Joplin” FB page where the event was also announced? Providing an opportunity for citizens to give their input virtually is even more important after a crisis because some members of the population may be displaced and temporarily living in another community. Their displacement, however, would not diminish their desire to have their voices heard.

The city’s own Facebook page, nonetheless, is being used as place to post recovery information and, to a limited extent, as an informal forum for people to ask questions. Another interesting point is that the page is the City’s page, not one of its agency’s, such as local Emergency Management. (Who’s page to use to broadcast recovery info is another planning consideration.) 

The City’s FB page also connects people who are interested in helping with those who need assistance–although recently they posted that there are more volunteers than there are needs.

3. Allowing for Micro-Donations

Another great aspect of social media and recovery is the ability for horizontal distribution of resources, by which I mean the ability for donors to give goods or funding straight to organizations they are interested in helping. This is in stark contrast to a vast “recovery fund” and allows people to really target their donations. This sort of giving reminds me in a way of micro-loans. For example, there is a FB fan page explicitly to collect donations for the Joplin High School band.  They are using the FundRazr app on the site which allows people to donate as much or as little as they can.

Even school districts are posting info on their social media sites about how to donate directly. 

In conclusion, since this has gotten to be a very long post, I can sum up the sentiment from the chat in one sentence:  have a plan in place for how you might use social tools for recovery…start before a crisis.

Related articles

Aussies Establish a Wiki to Distribute Social Media Best Practices

Social Media Strategy Transit Map

Image by Intersection Consulting via Flickr

Post by: Kim Stephens

Social media is still somewhat new for emergency management and related disciplines and therefore sharing information and best practices (and even failures) continues to be important. This is one of the goals I have for my own blog and is a driving force behind a lot of great sites: Canadian Patrice Cloutier’s Crisis Comms Command Post, 999socialmedia from Great Britain, Cheryl Bledsoe’s  sm4em.org, Jim Garrow’s blog The Face of the Matter,  as well as the U.S. DHS  sponsored First Responder’s Community of Practice (FRCOP). (The problem with a list is that you inevitably leave someone out–see my blog roll for a longer list.)

As can be gleaned from my list, lessons and best practices do not have to be limited to the United States. Earlier this year I wrote extensively about Australia and the Queensland Police Service‘s use of social media during the unprecedented flooding in January and then the subsequent Tsunami. Their example is truly something to be emulated and they continue to be a world leader in the use of social media for emergency management. These disasters spurred the Gov 2.0 (gov2qld) initiative in Queensland to explore how social media was used in disasters and to determine how best to share those lessons as well as new “learnings”.  They decided a Wiki would be the best platform not only for knowledge sharing but also for collaboration. The platform that was ultimately created is for use by all disciplines and stakeholders: emergency, government, not for profit, community, business, education and media. They also were interested in including  the public in order to ensure they have the knowledge “to use social media to better prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies.”Find their site here: Emergency 2.0 wiki.

As a side note, this effort really highlights how social media has brought collaboration and cooperation across emergency managers internationally. I love the fact that they have the #SMEM twitter hashtag rolling on their opening page. They also list many U.S. blogs (including my own and sm4em.org) on their resource page. Many in the Australian Emergency Management community also participate on the #SMEM hashtag (but not the chats since they are in the middle of the night for them). The hashtag is where I first saw them announce the wiki.

International collaboration is certainly one of FEMA’s goals. Just today, on the FEMA blog, they posted about International Partnerships and discussed how the Administrator Fugate and Deputy Administrator Serino met with they Russian emergency management counterparts in Boston.  “Unbeknownst to many, building and strengthening our partnerships with the international community is a large focus for us at FEMA.” We,  it seems,  in the SMEM community, have somewhat unwittingly created international collaboration as well. As the FEMA blog post stated:

“We may live in vastly different places, but we’re part of the same team – and we have a lot to learn from each other in the international community.”

Watch this video about how the QLD wiki got started and the goals for their site.