Post by: Kim Stephens
The documentation of social media’s use and impact during Hurricane Sandy has already begun. Patrice Cloutier wrote a great summary post “10 reasons why there’ll now be a before Sandy and post-Sandy in SMEM,” which is an excellent starting point. Not only are his 10 reasons dead-on, but he also links to quite a few articles about Sandy written by others in the social media and emergency management community. I have also been mulling over what occurred. Below I’ve have my top five observations/lessons learned and some humble recommendations for local first response organizations. Spoiler alert: all the recommendation relate to planning.
1. Observation: Citizens will use social media to ask for emergency assistance during large-scale disasters. I often tell Emergency Management organizations not to be too concerned about citizens posting 911-type “calls” of assistance to their Facebook page or Twitter account. From my perspective this is not something you see very often. However, there is one huge caveat: if people can’t get through to 911 they will ask for assistance anywhere they think their voice will be heard–especially during a major crisis event. This exact scenario happened to the New York Fire Department, specifically the Twitter account @FDNY. (See also the CNN story about @FDNY.)
It should be noted that time and again the woman managing the account reminded people to call 911. Nonetheless, she did pass the information on to dispatch and told people as much, versus abruptly dismissing distressed citizens.
What lessons can other emergency management or response organizations learn from this example:
- Whomever is interacting with the public needs to be able to handle pressure well–training and/or experience is necessary.
- Social media managers need to be aware of what to do if people ask for assistance and, if need be, should be empowered to pass along that information.
- A close connection from the social media manager to Ops is required– they need to have a good understanding of the situation in order to answer questions (see also the story about @ConEdison). This, in turn, will keep the call volume to 911 down–freeing up capacity for true emergency calls. The @FDNY account manager was well informed and when she didn’t know the answer she simply stated: “I’ll find out.”
Recommendation: Organizations should not assume that the statement on their Facebook and Twitter accounts “Please do not post the need for emergency assistance to this site. Call 911” will stop this from happening during a large-scale crisis. Standard operating procedures should be written for how this will be handled and the SOPs should be tested in exercises.
2. Observation: People want hyper-local information.
Impacted citizens are not interested in what is happening in the next State or even the next town–they want to know what roads they can use to get home, where they can buy milk and ice or get a hot meal, and when the power will be back on. This kind of content is best delivered by the local community for the local community. However, once your public safety organization starts posting that kind of vital “hyper-local” content it can result in popularity (as many as 800 new likes in one day can be expected during an event). A consequence of this new-found popularity: maintenance.
Quite a few small-community emergency management organizations only have one person dedicated to posting content to social media. This is usually more than enough when there isn’t a major crisis, however, large-scale events require ’round-the-clock staffing.
Recommendation: Organizations need to build capacity for participating in social networks. If it is determined that they cannot provide their own back-up support in order to staff a social media “desk” for 18-24 hours, then they should plan ahead for assistance. For example, the emergency management organization in Suffolk County, NY developed a relationship with social media volunteers, known as “Virtual Operations Support Teams,” before this disaster. This was due to the persistence and excellent leadership of one of their community members, JoAnna Lane (@Joannalane). But even if your community doesn’t have a “Jo” to get the ball rolling, the concept of a VOST is one every emergency management organization should explore.
3. Observation: Citizens WILL BE viewing your content on mobile devices. I was also an impacted citizen. Once we lost power I turned to my smart phone for information and what I found was a little frustrating. (I’m using my own local county as an example, but I’m sure they are not alone.) One of the great things about social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, is that they are designed to be viewed on smart phones, your local emergency management website, however, is probably NOT. Therefore, organizations should take advantage of these mobile-ready sites and post as much information as possible to them (this does not mean you can’t also place the same information on your website). Furthermore, Facebook now allows for posts that are quite long, so listing road closures, for example, could easily be accomplished either as an update or as a “Note.” Furthermore, posting content that requires a lot of bandwidth to view should also be avoided.
Recommendation: Standard “social media” operating procedures should take into account the devices people will be using, especially during power outages. Effort should be made to plan for how to provide as much information as possible in small “digestible” bite sizes.
4. Observation: People need to be able to charge their phones! The fact that emergency response organizations can now provide information directly to citizens via their cell phones is a great new reality…but those phones have to have power. Images of NYer’s going to great lengths charge their cell phones are everywhere. I even read something yesterday on the Canadian Red Cross blog about how people were charging their phones with a jerry-rigged system based on fire. The author stated: “BioLite‘s CampStoves use the fire from burning wood to charge mobile devices and cook at the same time.” The need to charge phones is simple: information is the vital to survival and recovery.
Recommendation: All communities (large or small) should plan for how they will help citizens get information via mobile devices. This might mean figuring out how to set up charging stations in shelters or other central locations (possibly in partnership with the private sector) as well as how to provide free wifi.
5. Observation: Social Media works during disasters. As Patrice Cloutier stated:
“Many governments, at all levels, used social media to communicate with their constituents before, during and after the passage of Sandy. Again, social networks (particularly Twitter) proved to be effective emergency information tools.”
I’ve heard the argument for years from various emergency response officials that they do not think social media is important because it won’t “work” during a large-scale disaster. They base this on the notion that during a catastrophic event all communication systems will fail. It might be true that someday we may experience a disaster of catastrophic proportions where every system fails, everywhere. What is more likely, though, is the occurrence of events such Sandy. Yes, there were some system failures, but cellular networks, once again, proved to be resilient. By choosing not to plan for the use of social media or text communications based on this “catastrophic” assumption seems to be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
Recommendation: Emergency management and response organizations should plan for the use of multiple communication tools to reach the public before, during and after disasters.
Of course these are broad-based observations that in no-way address every aspect of social media’s use, or problems of use, during Sandy, specifically I did not delve into the open-data or mapping debate. I’m sure we will all be dissecting this event for months to come. If you have an interesting observation, please let me know.
- Social media a news source and tool during Superstorm Sandy (cbsnews.com)
- FEMA debunks Hurricane Sandy rumors with new Snopes-like page (betanews.com)