Tag Archives: Hurricane Irene

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 (...

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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:

December Best of SMEM List: The Weather “Guys”

Post by: Kim Stephens

This post is one in a series of the “best of” social media and emergency management (#SMEM) for the year of 2011. So far  I have highlighted either individuals or government agencies, but today I’m exploring the contributions of a group of people: tweeting weather trackers. This group includes folks from the federal government, local meteorologist and even some private citizens. I’m putting them in the category of “best of” for three reasons: quality of content, speed of information dissemination, and interaction and/engagement with the community.

When describing the data collection efforts of volunteer crisismappers called the Standby Task Force (SBTF)  Andre Verity, an information management officer for a large international humanitarian organization, uses the concept of zoom levels. People who have very close proximity to the event are zoomed in, people working from across the world to support the response effort are zoomed out. With regard to weather trackers, this concept helps describes the different kinds of “tweeters”.

NOAA, for instance,  deserves a place on the “list” for working hard to disseminate very timely information from what might be considered a low zoom level–providing the overall big picture.  It’s obvious that they understand the importance of social media platforms in order to disseminate information, and in some cases to collect data from the public as well. Last August Hurricane Irene impacted communities from Puerto Rico to Vermont. According to NOAA’s own analysis found in “Irene by the Numbers” they posted frequently to their social platforms and the public responded: from August 20-28 their Facebook page gained 68,000 followers.  They also had an increase in what they called “active users” with a 514% increase in users who gave feedback on the Facebook Wall posts, although I do not have any information regarding how quickly they answered questions posted there. I like how the voice of NOAA was  personalized by their Communications & External Affairs Director, Justin Kenney, or @JustinNOAA. From a twitter account with his picture–not NOAA’s seal,  he sent out over 250 tweets in 7 days. (See also Patrice Cloutier’s SM AAR.) During the storm the Agency also took advantage of multiple social platforms  including YouTube, which was used to disseminate animated satellite imagery–one of those animations received almost a million views.

Numerous other weather events occurred this year that illustrate higher “zoom levels.” In April, I wrote about James Spann or @spann a meteorologist from ABC 33/40 TV in Alabama. He gained almost hero status from his community for his continuous twitter updates before, during and after the devastating tornados impacted a large swath of the Southeast, killing hundreds. Not only did he provide details about the storm’s track, but due to his large number of followers (over 25,000) he became a curator of response and recovery information. He re-tweeted information sent to him by his followers regarding where survivors could obtain assistance and where volunteers could provide help. A tweetreach analysis showed that each of these tweets reached over 37,000 people.

Even this recent December snow storm, pounding New Mexico, parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, brings into focus the tireless work of these weather tweeters. Kerry Jones or @Peakwx  provides a great example of how meteorologist have adapted to the twitter platform to quickly provide information to citizens regarding dangerous local weather conditions. Moreover, they are able to zoom in even closer to the event by passing along first-hand knowledge of the situation from community members themselves, via re-tweets. This community-generated content often includes vital life-safety information about road conditions and other hazards such as downed trees and power lines. By both pushing information they obtain from their own sources, as well content provided to them by their community, they provide a high level of situational awareness to all their followers.

Other weather tweeters I enjoy following: @JimCantore @okicemap @timbrice17 @oktwister @ounwcm. I’m sure I’ve missed some great examples, but in general, this group deserves recognition for how they have expertly woven social platforms into their communications’ strategies–a seemingly perfect fit.

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. 

Social Media and Irene, one NJ Police Chief’s experience.

Post by: Kim Stephens

During Hurricane Irene and the aftermath, Chief Vincent Caruso of the Lodi, New Jersey Police Department, found what many emergency management and law enforcement organizations are discovering: social media are a great avenue for the dissemination of information in a crisis. Lodi is a smallish town with a population of about 24,000, but is located in the pretty densely populated area near Hackensack, NJ. I had an opportunity to chat with the Chief today regarding his experiences during Irene, and I think it is pretty typical of what we are finding with other public safety institutions.

1. Only the Police Department (not OEM) used social media platforms to disseminate information. Towns, cities and counties are starting to realize that they have to decide which social media account will be the official voice during a crisis. I am finding, even in my own county, that crisis communications are posted in multiple places. In larger jurisdictions, it seems every organization has a facebook page and a twitter account: the fire department, the city police department, the county sheriff’s office, the county government, the mayor, the town council, the office of emergency management…you get the idea. Deciding which of these organizations will be THE voice for the crisis is a really important discussion to have before an event occurs. We have to remember that the Joint Information Center or system applies to social media. If a system is not in place, it makes it almost impossible to maintain message consistency.  Letting the public know which of these streams to follow is another vital part of the process.

For Lodi, this was not an issue, even without an official JIC, since only one organization (and one person) was responsible for posting to social media platforms. I was curious why the Police Department versus the Office of Emergency Management was responsible for disseminating crisis information. Apparently, and this could be true for other smaller communities, their OEM is only staffed  part-time when there is not an on-going response. OEM also did not have any experience with social media and the Police Department did. Therefore,  it was an easy decision to keep information flowing via these established, pre-Irene accounts. Also, since only one person was responsible for posting content, obviously, there was not an issue regarding message coordination.

2. Social media did allow LPD to gain situational awareness from citizens. One question that is always asked when talking about social media to public safety professionals is “how do you trust the information from citizens that comes to you via social networks?”.  I asked the chief how he decided whether or not a citizen report was valid enough for him to repeat: his response was along the lines of “trust but verify”. However, the Police Department’s facebook page is open, meaning people are allowed to post to the wall. Of course, when information, like the example above, is posted, that means others are able to see it, whether you repeat it or not. It also means people see information that is incorrect: one person asked “How big is the tornado?”. The response was “There is no reported tornado at this time.” However, there was a tornado watch earlier that day so the question wasn’t completely out of the blue.

I also asked how this information made its way to OEM. He said it was mostly done face-to-face since they work very near each other in the same building. However, OEM staff did monitor the social media accounts in order to understand what was being said, especially if the Chief was out of the building. 

3. Clearing content for release is not difficult when the person drafting the content is also the person in charge.

PIOs can face difficulty trying to release information in a timely manner, especially if the Incident Commander wants to tightly control the message.  During the September 16, 2011 #smemchat a PIO from Texas, who provided crisis communications via social networks during the recent Bastrop wildfire, stated that she was not allowed to tweet information in real-time from press conferences. She stated in a tweet that this was “because the county was concerned about ‘approval’ of info before it went out”. But, as she said, why not? The information is already out there–it’s a press conference! To me, this speaks more to an issue of trust than an issue of the medium.

With this in mind, I ask the LPD Chief about his clearance processes. He found it kind of amusing since he was sole the person responsible for disseminating information–Chief of Police and a PIO all in one. He indicated, however, that processes will have to be put in place if he hires or uses borrowed staff in the next event–see #4.  He’s assuming there will be another event since the town is prone to flooding.

4. Trying to keep a steady flow of information and also monitor social networks for comments, @ messages, and rumors is labor intensive. The Chief acknowledged that being the sole purveyor of social media content was almost too much for one person. He basically worked 48 hours straight during the height of the storm. When he was away from his desktop computer he kept an eye on the official accounts,  answering questions  and posting updates, from various mobile devices.

5. Posting information to social media platforms reduces the call volume. One of the biggest benefits response organizations are reporting regarding the use of social media is the reduction of phone calls (see this article as well).  Although I am not aware of any quantitative study detailing the exact percentage reduction, anecdotal evidence seems to prove the hypothesis.  An emergency manager, and friend of mine from nearby Cecil County Maryland, recounted at a recent conference that during Irene personnel in his 911 center asked him “What’s going on? We normally have hundreds more calls. We don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up.” What he was doing was posting information to social networks as soon as it was available.

Reading through the facebook posts on the LPD page, it becomes obvious what people wanted to know: “When will the power come back on?” Whenever there’s a power outage people call the police station–even though this isn’t even the correct place to report the problem. Chief Caruso indicated that by using social networks, he saw a marked reduction in those types of inquiries. People also let the police department know when they had power restored, which is useful information.

6. People will flock to your social media presence in a crisis. I have stated on numerous occasions that people might not necessarily find preparedness messages compelling, therefore, you might have a meager following on your facebook page and other social media accounts before a crisis. But, if you are not prepared for the onslaught when something does happen in your town, then you haven’t been paying attention. Chief Caruso was not overwhelmed per se, but he was a little surprised at how popular his facebook site became: an 11,000% increase in fans. He saw a huge increase in Twitter followers as well.  Even though each one of these fans might not see each message, more fans means the more people are there asking questions, making comments, and hopefully passing that information along to friends and family.

As the @FireTracker2 alluded during the Sept. 12 chat, we pontificate endlessly about the public being “prepared” yet most public safety organizations don’t have plans, procedures and systems in place to take advantage of communicating via social media in a crisis. How many more examples do we need? Plan now.

Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options and Policy Considerations

Baton Rouge, La., September 16, 2005 - A banne...

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Post by: Kim Stephens
The Congressional Research Service recently released this 13 page report “Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options and Policy Considerations” by Bruce R. Lindsay. I have attached the link to the document below. Thanks to Claire B. Rubin for bringing it to my attention.

Mr. Lindsay states that the report was written due to “congressional interest and discussion concerning how social media might be used to improve federal response and recovery capabilities” [emphasis added].  In order to speculate on potential federal uses beyond information dissemination, the author explores and summarizes how the medium has been used by the emergency management community. He addresses “potential benefits, as well as the implications, of using social media in the context of emergencies and disasters.”

Although the report is written to describe how social media can be utilized by FEMA, it seems to miss the mark on several fronts. For example,  when discussing the medium’s use during the recovery phase he states:

“…the agency could provide information concerning what types of individual assistance is available to individuals and households, including how to apply for assistance, announcing application deadlines and providing information and links to other agencies and organizations that provide recovery assistance, such as the American Red Cross, or Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans for homes and businesses.”

Although this is true, I don’t think this statement really points out the real potential of the technology. For example, community groups are currently leveraging  these networks to manage donations and volunteer efforts in a much more horizontal, collaborative fashion. Tools have been built, for example, that match people’s needs with other’s desire to help. In the process, they essential take government out of the equation. See this post: “Using Social Media to Aid Recovery” which describes how and why platforms such as Rebuild Joplin  were created. Essentially, the organizers of the site built it to filled a void. They provided a place for the public to find “trusted resources and dependable information”.

It took less than 36 hours for a team of volunteers to build the site, verify information, and announce the launch. Led by volunteers and the crew from SPI Creative, Rebuild Joplin will serve as a model for other communities affected by disasters.

The Joplin tool and others like it, including the wiki envisioned by Eric Holdeman in the article “Disaster Wiki: Get Ready Now to Harness the Power of Social Media,” I believe are the future of disaster recovery. Perhaps the author could have asked what the federal government could do to help foster the development of these types of sites and tools before a crisis occurs, versus focusing on just how to use these networks to disseminate information in a unilateral fashion after an event.

I also find this paragraph a little baffling:

Many residents experienced power outages lasting 48 hours or longer after Hurricane Irene. Yet many smartphones and tablets have battery lives lasting twelve hours or less depending on their use. Although social media may improve some aspects of emergency and disaster response, overreliance on the technology could be problematic under prolonged power outages. Thus emergency managers and officials might consider alternative or backup options during extended power outages, or other occurrences that could prevent the use of social media.” [emphasis added]

From personal experience, people will do whatever it takes to keep their cell phones charged. Of course we should always consider alternative ways to get information to people, but we should also discuss mitigation measures,  such as the rapid deployment of cell phone charging stations to allow for information to flow in ways most familiar to our populations. This seems to be a lesson learned after each big event.

His last sentence, however, I find to be the most confusing, given the increasing evidence of the importance use social media before, during and after a crisis. He states:

“It could be argued that the positive results of social media witnessed thus far have been largely anecdotal and that the use of social media is insufficiently developed to draw reliable conclusions on the matter. By this measure, it should therefore be further examined and researched before being adopted and used for emergencies and disasters.

His suggestion that adoption of these tools take place after “further examination is completed” is not really an option. Citizens, community organizations, volunteers and governments are already using social media for emergencies and disasters.   Although I would agree that we all still have a lot to learn, I believe, as they say in my native Texas “the horse has already left the barn”.

Click this link to see the CRS report. Social_media_9-06-11-1   If you have trouble, the article was also linked here: <http://www.fiercegovernmentit.com/story/crs-warns-social-media-abuse-during-emergency-response/2011-09-13>.

Social Media Lessons from Hurricane Irene

Post by: Kim Stephens

As Hurricane Irene made her way up the coast I prepared my own family for the potential impact and anxiously monitored social media traffic with an eye towards how it was being utilized by citizens,  government agencies and volunteer organizations. Unfortunately, we lost power on Saturday night (see above pic) and did not get service back until late Tuesday. This, however, did provide me the opportunity to view social media content using the one communication devise I had left: my smartphone.

Patrice Cloutier will be leading a team which will conduct a more comprehensive after action review, and I’m hoping to contribute to that effort; but for now, these are a few personal observations. I apologize in advance to my local and state EMA for what might be perceived as being hyper-critical of their efforts. I do appreciate that we are all learning how to operate in this very new medium.

1. Be leerily of hot button issues when retweeting. A disaster, like a surgeon’s knife, can rip holes in a community, figuratively and literally exposing existing problems under the surface. Social media reveals these issues to the world.  I discovered this when I retweeted a plea to help to take in animals from a shelter in North Carolina.  The alarming tweet stated: “All of the animals will be ‘euthanized immediately’. The pics of the puppies made me do it. 

After digging into the issue a little deeper, however, I found that the local government was also using social media to counter this claim with a “Rumor Control” message on their own Facebook page. They stated “This is NOT true. Our shelter is located very close to the Tar River, and a significant storm may cuase some flooding….therefore we may need to transport the animals…to other local shelters.”  The comments, however, tell the real story. The facility does euthanize animals after they have been deemed un-adoptable, and people with a concern for animal rights used the event to highlight this issue.  For my part, I simply tweeted the local government’s position and left it at that.

2. Understand how people access information. Once citizens loose power they more than likely have slow or no access to the internet. The cell towers in my community had no issues during the storm, but I live in an area that gets poor reception without an electric-powered repeater in my home. Although I only had 1 measly bar on my smartphone, I was still able to see a slow creeping tweeter feed. I found it frustrating, however, when government agencies sent out content that required me to visit a website. This tweet is a case-in-point. “County to distribute MRE’s tomorrow to families without power.” Which county? What’s the address of the point of distribution? Who’s eligible? All of these items could have been included in a tweet or two, but requiring the user to go to a website (normally a good practice) ensured that people in most need of the information were the most likely not to see it.

3. Keep track of comments and remove those that violate your decency policy. People can be ugly–that’s a fact, but don’t let them mar your social media presence–delete inappropriate content and do so quickly!

 To my readers, I apologize for leaving the foul language exposed in the picture, but I think it makes my point.

4. Repeat valid, important content from other organizations. From my perspective it seemed that local and state government EMAs did a pretty good job distributing information regarding their own activities (e.g. road closure, pics of people working hard in the EOC) but failed to retweet or even repeat information from other entities. For example, my local EMA never once tweeted that schools had cancelled classes.

Furthermore, EMAs should find out what organizations in their community are also using social media, before a crisis, and create a “community twitter list”. This list would not only help them keep track of those organization’s efforts, but would be a great resource for community members as well.  EMAs should also use their own twitter or facebook feeds to amplify volunteer efforts and government information, e.g. ‘Follow @ourlocalredcross’ for information on their activities during the storm”–a virtual JIC, if you will. Also, as an aside, remind people how to fast- follow you so that they receive your content as a text message.

The State EMA did a better job, but again, directed people to State and local websites, not twitter accounts. Do both.

5. Reverse 911 does not work for a large segment of the community when the power is out. Power outages left communities, not only without lights, but without phone service as well, especially for those of us using cable- based phone service. Our community relies very heavily on reverse 911 for both school and emergency information. This service, however, was only able to reach people with traditional land-lines. News spread quickly, nonetheless– via texting. Our teens knew school was cancelled by receiving texts from friends almost as soon as it was announced. But relying on important information to be distributed via word-of-mouth is really not a good contingency plan.

I look forward to really analyzing more information about social media’s use during this event–which continues to unfold in Vermont even as we write our after actions. Even though it wasn’t as big of a disaster as expected (for some), it can serve as a great learning opportunity:  MSELs compliments of mother-nature.

Goodnight Irene.