Tag Archives: FEMA

Aggregated Social Postings: FEMA and the NCR Social Hubs

Post by: Kim Stephens

FEMA consumed the majority of the Social Media and Emergency Management conversation on Twitter yesterday with their announcement of an update to their mobile application allowing people to post images of damage after a disaster: read more on Mashable.  Another interesting development–yet, much less discussed–was the announcement of their new “Social Hub” a feature on the FEMA mobile website.

photo 1

The Social Hub, as indicated by FEMA staff member Jason Lindy, pulls in Tweets from official or trusted sources and organizes them by topic. The site can be viewed on the desktop but has a better user experience on a mobile device, the intended platform.

A Visual JIC

This new feature is a great addition to  FEMA’s social presence since it allows for a “one-stop shop” of information from all  response partners (see the screen capture on the right). I think it is also a visual demonstration of how each organization and government agency should continue to post content relevant to their “lane” to the audience they have already built. The “Social Hub” aggregates that content and  literally puts everyone on the same page. The site can also help community members find relevant voices: when viewing the content  they will clearly see information provided not only by FEMA headquarters and regional offices, but probably even more importantly, from local officials.

National Capital Region

FEMA is not the only organization that has realized the value of having a Social Hub. The National Capital Region also has a News and Information Page that provides a similar feature–including alerts from partner agencies throughout the region.  The page highlights and provides  links to four main content areas: Emergency Alerts, Weather, Traffic, and Utility information.

ncrBy building the page they recognize that the public might not define “emergency” the same way that Emergency Management officials do. Large traffic incidents, poor road conditions and bad weather can be an emergency for an individual. Another great feature is that the links are not simply provided but the content is pulled into the site, also making it a one-stop shop for information.

Although the public can view official content directly on social networks by sorting information based on key words–I think these aggregated pages provide a valuable service. If you know of any similar sites, let me know!

#CrisisMapping for Recovery: Crisis Clean Up–A Collaboration Tool

Post by: Kim Stephens

medium_8179611271A truism in emergency management is that after a disaster thousands of people want to volunteer–the more high profile the event the more show up, sometimes creating a second disaster. Having a system to organize these altruistic individuals is critical.  As one researcher states: “…the effectiveness of volunteerism depends highly upon how well volunteers and voluntary groups and organizations are coordinated.  In this sense, having vast numbers of people and supplies frequently pose serious challenges for emergency management.”  Coordination, in turn, depends on clear, consistent, and timely communications (FEMA). But how is this done effectively?

The Problem

Aaron Titus, a member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, knows the ends and outs of volunteer coordination all too well. The faith-based group he is associated with can mobilize thousands of people–ready, willing, and able to work. In the days after Hurricane Sandy, that is exactly what happened: Aaron faced a veritable army of over 20,000 volunteers who needed to complete thousands of tasks across a large geographic area. How could he provide “clear, consistent, and timely communications” as well as a method to determine, track and record what everyone was doing? And…what about all of the other non-spontaneous organizations that also showed up to help?

medium_8236682972Coordinating not only what his own group was doing, but also ensuring that they were not duplicating efforts or leaving out survivors who needed assistance, was a problem that seemed insurmountable. BUT he had a secret weapon. During the southern New Jersey “derecho” storms of July, 2012 he had used  the little programming knowledge he had to sort out a simple, yet brilliant, software solution. With a  job as big as Sandy, he enlisted the help of other developers, including Jeremy Pack, to create a more robust version of that solution that ended up being utilized by more than 100 organizations.

The Tool

What Aaron created, essentially, was a work-order-system/Crisis Map. The system has the following basic components (see an example map here).

  • Intake: An online intake request/assessment form is made available to 2-1-1. This enables the 2-1-1 operator to input information (as non-personally identifiable, as possible) about where the work needs to be done, who is requesting, and what is being requested. These forms are customizable–for instance, if a disaster hit an area with a large population of non-English speakers, a field for “language spoken” could be added.
  • ccuLegendTracking: A case number is generated for each request and the form syncs to a map–automated fields are included to alleviate confusion, for instance,  the county-field is automated. Whether or not the work is on private or public property is also noted–which is VERY important.  Communities need to keep track of all public volunteer work in order to count this against FEMA’s public assistance contribution requirements.
  • Categorization: The software includes categories and codes for the work order request based on completion and type. Regarding completion,  a red icon indicates work is “unassigned,” yellow means “claimed,” green is “completed,” and grey is “out of scope.” There are two categories of work indicated: flood damage or tree/wind damage. This distinction is made because some organizations do not let volunteers operate chain saws.
  • Assignments:  Affiliated organizations, as well as organizations that can prove they are legitimate, are allowed to access the map in order to claim work and record completed work. By claiming work, the group essentially says, “We can do this one.”
  • Stop-Gaps: The system has features that prevent the same request from being recorded more than once. When the 2-1-1 operator starts to enter a name or address a field pops up listing all similar entries.
  • Updates: The volunteers doing the work can update the status on the software system, which is seen by the 2-1-1 operator. If someone calls back to 2-1-1 asking about the status,  the operator can see if a group (as well as which group) has claimed the work.
  • Reporting: 2-1-1 staff can generate summary reports about the work requested and completed to provide to local or state emergency management officials.

*****In response to a few questions on Twitter, there’s one point of clarification. The ability to sign-up for the tool is available to any organization participating in recovery, including 2-1-1.

Unique Solution

There are a couple of things about this  volunteer-work-order system that are unique. For one, no group is “assigned” tasks or even a geographic area–as is often done using a grid technique. They can choose what, when and where to work on their own. Also, even though the system is online, the privacy of the requestor is protected–only those groups that have been granted access can see all of the detailed information: the public-facing maps on the Crisis Clean Up website do not include homeowners names, addresses or phone numbers–see example below.

I also like that this system is integrated into the existing government partnership with United Way’s 2-1-1. A lot of State and local communities have started to use 2-1-1 to communicate emergency recovery information. For example, officials in New Jersey state “…2-1-1 is a critical communication link between emergency management professionals and the public-at-large. By the very nature of the 2-1-1 system, NJ 2-1-1 is perfectly positioned to respond immediately during times of crisis. It is structured to manage the expected high volume of crisis-related calls and the 2-1-1 staff is trained to direct callers to services most appropriate for their needs.”



So how much does this all costs? Unfortunately, it is free for anyone to use. Why  “unfortunately?” Free usually means that the product or the solution is not sustainable–although it is open source. They do have a “donate” button on the website, but I’m guessing their list of contributors is quite small. Aaron and his team work on this software tool as a labor of love–however, I’m sure they would be happy if the Knight Foundation, or another philanthropic organization provided them the necessary cash flow to ensure disaster-impacted communities could have access to this amazing tool. If you are interested in volunteering with them I’m guessing Aaron would be pleased to hear from you–especially if you are a seasoned grant writer! Contact him via Twitter @aarontitus.

Bonus Video:

Volunteer photo 1. Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunaparknyc/8179611271/”>Luna Park Coney Island</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Volunteer photo 2. Credit: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/vixwalker/8236682972/”>Vix Walker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Note: Developer Andy Gimma now co-leads the Crisis Cleanup project, along with Chris Wood.

#SMEMChat Makes it to Congress

Post by: Kim Stephens

Patrice Cloutier tweeted:

And I’d have to answer…yes!

When the Social Media and Emergency Management #SMEM community started chatting at 12:30EST every Friday almost two years ago, we knew we were on to something. That day, Craig Fugate, the Director of FEMA, joined in–causing those of us who had organized the chat to literally jump up and down in our offices. It was pretty obvious that indeed we had started something that could be quite good.

Flash forward a couple of years, and in order to prepare for the Congressional Hearing that took place today (June 4, 2013) some of the staff for Congress Woman Susan Brooks asked if they could join in the #smemchat. In fact, what the staffers asked Heather Blanchard and I specifically was: “We want to ask you about your Friday activities.” I honestly had to think twice before answering that!  They wanted to join in the chat so that they could talk to practitioners directly, and it appears that the chat–as well as those who participated–made an impression. A couple of funny notes–for one, anyone can join in the chat–permission to participate is never required; and two, no one person or group is responsible for organizing the chat on a weekly basis (some people are under the impression that it is run by FEMA, but that can’t be farther from the truth). Anyone can join in, and anyone can ask questions. I would have to add one caveat: don’t try to sell a product–even a high tech social media gadget–to this group during the chat. It is a very bad idea.

During the Hearing, Ms. Brooks cited the chat as a reference–it helped her understand what the emergency management community was interested in learning from the private sector witnesses. The chats are always a place to get a good understanding of what others are thinking and doing across the country related to social media–which is why it has persisted for so long.

Very cool.

The Hearing was titled: “Subcommittee Hearing: Emergency MGMT 2.0: How #SocialMedia & New Tech are Transforming Preparedness, Response, & Recovery #Disasters #Part1 #Privatesector.” There are a whole lot of hashtags in that title! Below are the witnesses that testified today along with links to their written testimony.

Mr. Matthew Stepka
Vice President
Witness Statement [PDF]

Mr. Jason Payne
Philanthropy Engineering Team Lead
Palantir Technologies
Witness Statement [PDF]

Mr. Michael Beckerman
President and CEO
The Internet Association
Witness Statement [PDF]
Witness Truth in Testimony [PDF]

Mr. Jorge L. Cardenas
Vice President
Asset Management and Centralized Services
Public Service Enterprise Group, Inc.
Witness Statement [PDF]

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!

The Story of the Southern Storms: told through Twitter

Post by: Kim Stephens

I often find myself explaining twitter to people who have never used the micro-blogging platform before, or at least haven’t used it very much. I find it a little like to trying to explain what an elephant looks like to someone who’s only seen the nose. But what occurred to me while reading the twitter feed after the devastating Southern storms, is that reading them was like reading a book written by 100s of people: each phase of the disaster is a different “chapter” and each tweet is one sentence in a paragraph. Sometimes the sentences are out of order and sometimes they don’t make sense until you read the entire page but, nonetheless, each one sheds a little more light on the plot.

How do you choose which book to read? The hashtags associated with each tweet organize the information into “books” if you will suffer with my analogy here. #ALwx stands for Alabama weather and by following that tag, you don’t even need to know or follow any of the individuals tweeting the information. For more insights into the definition of hashtags see the Twitter Fan Wiki definition.

I would like to use this horrible crisis to continue the analogy, but in no way do I mean to trivialize it. Rather, I hope to shed some light on what types of information is conveyed through the platform.

Chapter 1: Take Cover  If an event has a warning, as this one did,  you will find in the twitter feed many personal safety messages as well as information about the storms’ track. Most of these originate from government agencies, for example FEMA, NWS, local news stations and local public safety agencies. This tweet, for example started with FEMA.

But citizens also add their own observations.

Chapter 2: You Should be in a Shelter NOW! During a major storm event, the most common tweets are those describing the storms’ location. Notice how information about damage is reported simultaneously and almost instantly.

Chapter 3: Destruction

Pictures such as this one of Gardendale, AL start to show up in the twitter feed instantly, as soon as the storm passes. This pic was posted by a local news organization to their feed, but they received it from a citizen via twitter and yfrog.

Chapter 4: One Voice Emerges

During this recent crisis, James Spann, a meteorologist from ABC 33/40 TV, became the main storyteller. With over 25,000 followers of his own, and many people re-tweeting him, the website Tweetreach estimated that he reached 30,981 people with each tweet. The information he disseminated was original content based on NWS weather data, information people sent him via @ messages (such as donation information), and retweets of other info he found pertinent. This actually makes him more of a content curator, similar to the role Andy Carvin of NPR played (and continues to play) during the Mid-east peace uprisings.

Chapter  5:  We will Recover.

Recovery often begins with gratitude and with people figuring out ways to help each other. The twitter feed for this “chapter”  is no different. It is also a great place to find stories of hope, such as the tweet about a 8 year-old boy found alive after being sucked into a tornado. I also loved the story of the man finding his dog alive even though everything else was a total loss.

Many tweets point people to where they can donate to the relief effort either monetarily or physically, e.g. with manual labor to help clean up. 

I understand that twitter takes some getting used to in order to be able to “read the book”. But once you get the hang of it, it’s really a hard one to put down. If you’d like to donate to help out all those affected here’s the link  to the American Red Cross mid-Alabama chapter.

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

Flood in Znojmo (2006) 5

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

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

1. Preparedness

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

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

2. Mitigation

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

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

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

3. Recovery/Response

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

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

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

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FEMA’s Preparedness Information Could Include More “How-To’s” Regarding Social Media

Post by: Kim Stephens

Fellow blogger, John Solomon, has been gearing up for the September, 2010 National Preparedness Month by writing a series of posts about FEMA’s efforts.  He reports that FEMA is incorporating new media and technologies into their monthly activities, in particular by launching the new mobile application: m.FEMA.gov. Solomon also mentions an Emergency Plan for individuals and families FEMA developed along with the Ad Council that has a text or email feature.

“This application is designed to aid you in assembling a quick reference list of contact information for your family, and a meeting place for emergency situations. …you can paste it into email or text documents you can send to others or save on your computer.”

Although this effort is laudable, why not remind people to enter this information into their cell phone and then create an emergency contact “group” (most phones allow for this). Once the group is created one text can be typed and sent to everyone in the group. Or, why not ask the cell phone companies to publish how to make these groups on each of their different cell phone models for use in emergency situations.  Groups, of course, are quite easy to create on Twitter and Facebook, and are also available as a mobile application on smart phones, but FEMA’s preparedness site is completely mute regarding these new technologies. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=facebook&iid=8921402″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8921402/facebook-executives/facebook-executives.jpg?size=500&imageId=8921402&#8243; width=”234″ height=”176″ /]

Furthermore, the “Ready Business” page that details how to write a crisis communications plan was last updated February 6, 2008. Technology changes rapidly, and this recommendation seems antiquainted:

“Set up a telephone call tree, password-protected page on the company website, an email alert or a call-in voice recording to communicate with employees in an emergency.”

Instead companies, even small companies, can turn to social media to communicate to both their employees and their customers. Many free or inexpensive options are now available:  SMS text messaging;  Yammer, which is a closed network for a subscribing company; Twitter and Facebook,  just to name a few.

Moreover, the business crisis communication’s plan provided by FEMA doesn’t include any advice on new technologies that are available to assist in keeping in touch with employees after a disaster–(for example,  Safe and Well developed by the American Red Cross or other web-based tools now available to track people). Companies could also employ a closed-group service such as Yammer, for this purpose.

Business continuity consultants are beginning to understand the power of social media, and FEMA really is trying to amp up their  social media efforts,  yet it might take a while before it filters into every part of the agency.

Social Media is DATA.

By: Kim Stephens

Craig Fugate spoke at the Red Cross Social Media Summit and implored the audience not to think of social media in terms of each of the component parts (e.g. Facebook, twitter, etc) but as sources of data. You can follow him on Twitter via @ CraigatFEMA.

How we deal with situational awareness information/data coming from non-traditional-communication channels is one of the biggest challenges facing the emergency response community.  Unfortunately, we are playing catch-up to public expectations.

In his talk, Fugate noted the public’s use of social media in crises is growing. One of the many challenges this presents is the ability of first responders and governments to monitor such information and act on it in a timely manner. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=fugate&iid=8762078″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8762078/press-secretary-gibbs-fema/press-secretary-gibbs-fema.jpg?size=500&imageId=8762078&#8243; width=”234″ height=”310″ /]

This point was made in the Red Cross-survey,  74% of respondents age 18-34 agreed with the statement: “Emergency response agencies should regularly monitor their websites and social media sites so they can respond promptly to any requests for help posted there.” Clearly, many younger citizens have high expectations in terms of responses and replies to their requests.

How we organize ourselves to sort, aggregate, verify and then visualize (e.g. maps or timelines) all of this information is truly yet to be determined: it’s difficult enough during run-of-the-mill events, much less during a large-scale disaster.  The participants at the summit discussed  these questions, you can view their collective responses on the summit’s blog.  Another important paper, written by John Solomon and Dr. Roni Zeiger in anticipation of the summit, also addresses these concerns: “The Case for Integrating Crisis Response with Social Media“. Yet, even these papers leave the reader with more questions than answers.

But just having emergency managers agree that social media is data and not a disease would be a good start.