Tag Archives: Los Angeles Fire Department

Top 7 Social Media Lessons from LA Arson Fire Event

Post by: Kim Stephens

The Los Angeles area arson fires were an unwelcome addition to the 2011 holiday  season.  Although I’m sure each of the agencies involved in the Joint Task Force including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and members of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will be examining their response effort in detail, today I am gleaning some lessons learned with regard to the established Joint Information System, and in particular, how they handled social media during the event. Captain Mike Parker, PIO with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, was gracious enough to share his insights so that other agencies across the country may learn from their experience.

The absolutely most interesting aspect of this Joint Information Center public information campaign is how they not only repeated the same message through each agency’s own outreach platforms–websites, nixle accounts, facebook pages and twitter feeds– but how they combined into one voice via the name “Arson Watch LA”. A Facebook page with that name was established and a twitter account @ArsonwatchLA was created with the blessing and contribution from each of the Joint Task Force member agencies.

The public did respond very favorably to this outreach strategy. Within the first 36 hours of establishing the new name they had over 1000 fans of their Facebook page with over 3000 page views. The twitter account had similar success with 1500 followers in the first 36 hours and, according to tweetreach, they reached over 29,000 people via 50 tweets. Not only did they receive lots of press coverage for the effort (see below) but there was a citizen outpouring of gratitude once the danger seemed to have passed.

What did it take to pull this off? Captain Parker stated in my interview with him that the effort to set up a Facebook page and a twitter account took only a matter of minutes, but the system and approval processes that made that happen is where the story lies. Based on his experience, he has shared these lessons:

1. Put systems in place for a Joint Command/multi-agency social media presence before an event. Although this seems like an obvious statement, it isn’t necessarily an easy task to get many different agencies to agree to be lumped together under a joint account. Why? Agencies work hard to establish trust with their constituents and audiences, particularly on social media platforms, so there could be fear that joining under one name would diminish not only their presence but their ability to highlight their contribution to the response effort. These concerns can be ameliorated beforehand if they are understood and addressed. It is also important for all the agencies involved to understand the potential rewards and benefits of working under one name.

2.  Establish joint accounts before an event occurs. Deciding the Task Force would work under one name was done fairly quickly, choosing the name took a little bit of time. This is the kind of decision that could be done in advance. Furthermore, if you use these accounts each time for similar events,  then public familiarity with them will rise.

3. When working with multiple agencies, timeliness of information dissemination could be slow. After the event had worn on for several days the number of people in the message approval process began to grow. How can large organizations involved in a joint command make nimble decisions regarding what should be put in public messages? Short and sweet seemed to be the best answer. Since twitter only allows for 140 characters, this helped those involved tailor short, simple, factual statements that could be readily approved by all those involved. Forget word-smithing: stick to the facts and get the info out-the-door. Another great point made by Captain Parker was that trust in the PIOs is essential. If the PIO is also a command officer or someone who is fairly high-ranking, this reduces the length of the chain of command these messages have to wind their way through.

4. Listen. Listen. Listen. One of the more interesting lessons I heard the Captain describe was how they used their social media presence to gauge public sentiment and information needs. Despite a little media hype about the Task Force getting tips about the arsonist via these platforms, the most important lesson was that by using these open forums the public was able to ask very important questions, such as “What can I do or should I be doing to protect myself?” The PIOs then tailored their public information campaign to address these concerns and even posted precautionary protective measures prominently on their Facebook “info” tab.

I asked the Captain how the PIOs monitoring the social media platforms handled comments and he stated something I have also found to be the case: the public will answer each other’s questions, often before you even have a chance to respond. Regarding their interagency cooperation, there was never an issue regarding the ability of whomever was monitoring the page to answer comments nor was there a need for pre-approval from the other Task Force member agencies for these answers.

5. Ignore Stupid comments: The crowd will not only answer questions but will also shout down people who make really stupid or insulting comments and, as Captain Parker stated, this allows for the government agency to simply ignore this kind of behavior. However, it is still prudent to have a take-down policy stated on your “info” tab that describes how comments will be handled if they do cross the line.

6. Be prepared to staff 24/7. When planning for a Joint Command Multi-Agency social media presence, include staffing measures for 24/7. Parker said, ” at 3am there was nothing on the news, but Facebook and Twitter were a beehive of activity by the public and reporters. It never stopped 24/7.” Especially during this event where the arsonist struck at night, people were nervous and turned to social media to discuss what was happening, ask questions, and look for first-hand accounts of new fires.  The Task Force knew they had to be on those platforms in order to not only provide  information, but also to monitor the conversation. I’m sure seeing their presence provided a fair amount of comfort to those sitting at their computer worried about their family’s safety.

7. Learn the language of Social Media before an event. This seems like another obvious statement, but if your agency is not familiar with social media–learn it now. The last thing you want to be doing during an event is trying to figure out what a Retweet is or how to read a tweet.

I’d like to thank Captain Parker again for his contribution to this post.  Captain Parker wanted me to make clear his thanks “…to the great partners of the L.A. Arson Watch Task Force and the public we all serve.”

Ready or not the public uses Social Media in crisis situations

A Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) ladder tr...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The article “Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service: Emergency Management & Social Media Evangelism” by Latonero, et.al, (May 2010) is an interesting case study about the use of social media in the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).  Brian Humphrey, the long-time PIO of LAFD, was the focus of the study since he has been the tip-of-the-spear with regards to the implementation social media in the response community: see this online interview with him on John Solomon’s blog.  The Latonero article is interesting not only because it discusses some of the advantages new media can provide to a response organization, but also because it presents the numerous challenges created by this type of communications medium.

Biggest advantage: “Bypassing mass media as traditional intermediaries.” The ability to engage the public in near real-time and provide them with another way to receive legitimate information directly from the Department became one of the key motivators for implementing this form of communication.

Biggest challenge: The ability to engage the public in near real-time. One quote  from Mr. Humphrey’s twitter feed illustrates the challenge: “270 voice mails and 2000+ non-spam emails expecting a reply. Dunno how or when I’ll get back to you all.”

This article leads to the question: Why engage the public through social media at all if it creates unreal expectations? One answer is that people are already using social media daily and will use it during crises, whether we like it or not. This article in today’s Washington Post “Twitter breaks story on Discovery Channel gunman James Lee” is a prime example: From the story

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=discovery+channel&iid=9640899″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9640899/gunman-takes-hostages/gunman-takes-hostages.jpg?size=500&imageId=9640899″ width=”234″ height=”259″ /]”The news of a gunman at the Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Silver Spring indeed traveled fast on Wednesday, but none of it came through radio, TV or newspaper Web sites, at least not at first. As it has with other breaking news events — the landing of a jet on the Hudson River in 2009, the 2008 massacre in Mumbai — the story unfolded first in hiccupping fits and starts on Twitter..”

At the American Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit this past Aug. 12, 2010, Heather Blanchard, one of the co-founders of Crisis Commons made the presentation: “Closing the Gap Between Public Expectation and Disaster Response Reality,  Call to Action: Finding Common Language for Cooperative Response.”  She made several interesting and compelling points regarding how the emergency management community could solve the conundrum of both engaging the public through social media and also handling the vast amount of information the new media provide.

How? Currently, in most response organizations, only the PIOs are responsible for social media in terms of both sending and receiving messages. This quote from the Washington Post story illustrates how much effort is involved in taking the raw information from Twitter, in this case, and then turning it into actionable intelligence.

But as rich as Wednesday’s Twitter feed was, it was merely a starting point for reporters. “The initial information may have come to us through these tools, but we have to apply the old-media skills of vetting and serving as a filter” for what’s accurate, said Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA-TV. “We can’t let raw info to go out over air. The front end is new, but we still have to do our work on the back end.”

Ms. Blanchard pointed out that during large events PIOs could easily become overwhelmed, as demonstrated by Mr. Humphrey’s tweet. Instead, she recommended that response organizations think about who in their community could be trained as volunteers to assist with data collection, aggregation and vetting, for example: students from local universities or people from local technology companies.

With regards to organizational structure, she presented an EOC org chart with the concept of a  newly created “technology cluster”. The cluster would include

  • an analytic cell
  • GIS cell
  • open source info
  • ESF Liaisons

The analytics cell would indicate their data requirements but would not process data: the “Data Operations Center” (which could be manned by volunteers) would search, aggregate, and vet information and potentially provide that information in a visualization tool.

This is an interesting proposition. Read through her slides and let me know what you think.