Tag Archives: SMEM

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: Atlanta Public School’s Long Snow Day

Post by: Kim Stephens

large_12197276904We had a light dusting of snow last night and schools are closed today in my county. I’m guessing there are some officials in Atlanta wishing they had made the same decision yesterday before snow and ice paralyzed the city‘s roadways. Although they tried to dismiss school early the traffic was so horrific some buses were unable to get children home and instead had to return them to school. Parents who normally pick up their children were stuck in traffic eerily reminiscent of scenes from the Atlanta-based series The Walking Dead. A shelter-in-place order was issued after 10:00 pm last night and about 452 staff and students spent the night in several different ATL public school buildings.

This situation could be any public communicator’s nightmare scenario. However, the Atlanta Public School’s communications team provided a master class in emergency information dissemination, mainly through their @apsupdate (or Atlanta Public Schools Update) Twitter account. Here are a few things they did well.

1. Addressed parents questions and concerns directly

I have heard quite a few communicators debate whether or not they should address direct questions since it could overwhelm staff and bog down the message they are trying to convey. However, in this situation, the decision to address each person was the only logical choice–ignoring parents’ questions could have been its own disaster.

2.  Addressed rumors–immediately

It is a good/best practice to directly address people that are disgruntled or spreading half-true information. The Tweet below demonstrates this tactic. It appears a couple of kids got into a kerfuffle at one of the sheltering schools and were escorted to the office. Once person stated on Twitter “…fights are breaking out!” The Tweet was outlandish and ATL Public School communicators pointed out that not only was the person incorrect, but were needlessly causing concern.

3. Communicated tirelessly

When children are kept in school buildings overnight without their parents I’m guessing not a lot of people are getting a good-night’s rest. This was true for the communications team as well. Indeed, the Twitter feed for the district was active all night, for example, at 2:00 a.m. they addressed an upset parent that was concerned about building security.

In the morning they addressed a high school student that said she was cold:

As the new day began, they addressed a flood of questions and sent out reminders that school was canceled.

4. Used multiple platforms and allowed venting

The school district used both Twitter and Facebook to post school closure and the shelter-in-place information. Not surprisingly, parents were a TAD upset that their children could not get home and were quite unrestrained in their comments, especially on Facebook–calling for administrators to be held accountable, etc. It appears some Facebook comments may have been deleted by the district, however, that mistake was acknowledged or at least addressed. This interaction occurred on their page:

  • Yup. They deleted one of my comments which was not irate, no bad language, nothing. I simply called out the truth – they did not take our children, teachers or parents safety into consideration at all.
  •  Atlanta Public Schools Dana McElwee Carnahan we rarely, if ever delete posts. We value social media and interaction and maintain a robust FB and Twitter presence. Feel free to post again.
5. Social Media is integrated into their Website and Blog
Screenshot 2014-01-29 09.49.29Although the decision to incorporate social media posts into their blog and website was done well before the storm, it certainly can pay dividends during a disaster or emergency.  Websites are still one of the most popular go-to resources for community members: not everyone engages on social media (shocking, I know).  Integration, however,  provides an opportunity for non-social media users to read real-time interactions during the height of the event and participate if they are interested. By prominently displaying these feeds it also reminds community members that their social accounts are active.
Although the Atlanta Public Schools decision-making process regarding closures will probably be questioned in the months to come, the communications team should be praised for their very hard work during this event (which is still ongoing at time of writing).  Not only did they step up during the storm to provide parents and community members with the latest information, they were obviously prepared to do so by having systems and processes in place.  That level of advanced planning is truly a lesson worth noting.

Top #SMEM Challenges for 2013: I Don’t Have Time!

ESA/ESOC goes Social Media _10

Post by: Kim Stephens

Patrice Cloutier, James Garrow and I have colluded a bit to reflect on SMEM in 2012: James is writing up his top five social media lessons learned during the year; Patrice is taking note of the SMEM great events of 2012 (including disaster events where social media played a pivotal role in providing both situational awareness to first responders as well as vital information to the public); and my self-assigned task is to write about the challenges we face in the year to come. The three of us are equally passionate about  social media, and share the mindset evident in statement from Garrow’s post “Top 5 SMEM Lessons: The Public Uses Social Media”

The public has integrated social media into their lives. The fruits of that integration are demonstrated during every disaster… Ignoring the state of the world is, for an emergency manager, tantamount to malfeasance. Our greatest lesson learned this year is that we can no longer ignore social media or keep it out of our planning.

Nonetheless, I think there is a “but.” Although I agree that emergency managers should no longer ignore social media, there are many challenges that come with getting emergency management professionals proficient with these tools. In this and subsequent posts I will outline some of these challenges and link them to emerging solutions. (I have adapted some of the post below from something I wrote for Western  Regional Homeland Security Council in Massachusetts.)

Challenge #1: “I don’t have time.”

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

Although there are an increasing number of emergency managers swimming in the social media tide, some folks remain firmly on the beach. They might even know how to swim (for instance use Facebook for personal reasons) but are reluctant to jump in wearing their emergency management  suit.  The explanation these professionals often give is that they don’t have time. Although the statement “I don’t have time” could be code for “I don’t think this is important”  it also could mean a multitude other things. For instance, I don’t have time…

  •  to devote to learn the tools;
  •  to devote to developing a meaningful social presence;
  •  to update social networks during a crisis;
  • to answer all of the questions from the public posted to our pages.

These folks also understand that if they build a presence on social media people will come to these sites during an event and expect timely content. This is not a comforting thought. They know that will have set up an expectation for information dissemination that they cannot meet.

Honestly, I completely understand the predicament. Although some organizations have a full-time staff person devoted to social media, most do not. Only bigger cities have a full-time PIO and increasingly, small communities don’t even have a full-time Emergency Manager. Often these part-time EMs are dual hatted, so if they had a couple of hours a week to write and post a few preparedness tips to their Twitter account and Facebook page, during a crisis, they might literally be the same person on the other end of the fire-hose.

Help! Can I Outsource this?

Supplementing staff during a crisis is not new; it is new, however, in terms of social media. The idea of handing over the reigns of these accounts is very difficult concept for some. Who would you trust to be the voice of your organization?  Although this concept  may initially seem like a stretch–I would never allow someone else to be our voice!–there is a perfect example of how outsourcing can work: Incident Management Teams. When an IMT comes into your community you do trust them to do what is required/asked.  However, this arrangement is not without strings attached–a  ”Delegation of Authority” agreement is signed between the two parties detailing expectations. Below is an excerpt from a sample DoA:

You have full authority and responsibility for managing incident operations within the framework of legal statute, current policy, and the broad direction provided in both your verbal and written briefing materials. You are accountable to me. A formal evaluation of your performance will be conducted prior to your departure. This formal evaluation may be followed up within sixty days after your departure once the Agency has had the opportunity to review accountability, claims, financial matters, and other items, which require time to evaluate.

Although IMTs often do include public information officers, it is not realistic to assume that communities will have the opportunity to use an IMT every time there is an incident. But even small, localized events can stretch resources and limit an organization’s ability to “deal” with social media. This is why the concept of a Virtual Operations Support Team is increasingly gaining in popularity. For just a bit of background, repeating content from previous posts, a VOST (a concept developed by Jeff Phillips) can be defined as a team that accomplishes some or all of the following:

  • Establishes a social media presence for an organization that previously did not use social networking tools to communicate with the public;
  • Monitors social media communications;
  • Handles matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers;
  • Follows social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicates issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective;
  • Identifies misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provides a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplifies the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or official social media accounts);
  • Compiles media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Documents social media conversations.

Who serves on the VOST?

Unlike IMTs, VOSTs are not pre-formed, nationally trained teams. One current misperception is that the “VOST”  will swoop into your community after a disaster.  Although there are people who work on VOSTs for specific communities or organizations, those folks have been pre-identified by the community  (I cannot emphasize that enough).

In other words, if you are interested in having a group (or even just one person) ready help with social media after a disaster, you have to take responsibility to foster that relationship and come to a terms of agreement before the disaster. Communities have done this in several different ways (explained in more detail below). Some have turned to CERT members (e.g. Anaheim California’s Office of Emergency Management); others have tapped  savvy social media community members (e.g. Cecil County, Maryland); and still others, including the NYC Public Health Department, have developed a VOST from within their agency by training their own employees–e.g. people willing to add additional duties for the opportunity to do something unique during a disaster response.

Like an IMT, VOST members can supplement resources and potentially even bring in a new set of skills.

VOST Models 

From my perspective, three models have emerged for the use and structure of VOSTs. Interestingly, the model or category an organization falls into seems to be a reflection of the both the level of trust with VOST members as well as the level of trust and knowledge/comfort with social media in general. The models I have identified are

  1. External Support (Amplify and Monitor Only)
  2. Hybrid Support (Amplify, Monitor, and Respond on behalf of the organization, but with specific limits)
  3. Internal/Embedded (Full range of social media duties and support)

1. External VOST Support:

Organizations that are both new to social media and the concept of a “VOST” might consider using support from team members in a more conservative manner. In this model the following support might be provided:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective);
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplify the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or established community VOST social accounts).

Team members could provide this support from afar–in fact, getting this type of assistance from folks outside of your community might be a great option since they would be out of the impacted area and would therefore have power in their home, or office, etc. Remember, monitoring social media does not have to happen in your EOC.

  • But who? Team members could be emergency managers from the other side of the state,  for instance.
  • But how? It is important to note that with any of these models, communication between the team members and the organization is vital for success. For example, if the team identifies a potential issue that needs to be addressed quickly (e.g. people posting angry comments on Mayor’s Facebook page about conditions in the shelters) they need assurance that the customer/organization has seen this red flag.

2. Hybrid Support

In this model, the team does everything identified in the external support model, but also responds to questions from community members and posts content on behalf of the organization.  Unlike the model above, these individuals would be made administrators of those accounts. In this approach, however, there are specific limitations placed on the team members. For instance, they are allowed to post on behalf of the organization, but only information that has already been cleared by their organization’s PIO or posted on other official government accounts.

  • But who? I have seen this model used with CERT volunteers.
  • But how? Similar to the way 311 employees use pre-scripted responses to citizen’s questions, the social media volunteers are provided answers to frequently asked questions that they can type into the Facebook page, or post to the Twitter account. They would be responsible for monitoring these accounts and flagging any out-of-ordinary questions and obtaining quick answers: e.g. Is Elkton Road flooded?

3. Internal/Embedded

In this model, the VOST team leader  is given the full range of social media duties. This model is often utilized by small communities that do not have a full-time (or even part-time PIO) and the Agency’s staff person responsible for social media communication has many other duties during the response to a crisis or disaster.

  • But who? Often this type of arrangement is made with people very familiar with the organization and maybe even retired PIOs. The organization has an established, trusted relationship with the person or team members.
  • But how? In order to provide this type of support, it is often best to have the team, or a least the team leader, embedded at the Emergency Operations Center.

There are many examples of what VOST members have accomplished during the past two years. Click on the links below to see some of the social media pages they have built. Sorry for the extra-long post. I hope you have made it to the end! If you have any questions about this concept please let me know.









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 (...

Image via Wikipedia

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 List: Partnerships Toward Safer Communities and Patrice Cloutier

Post by: Kim Stephens

The best of SMEM: The Canadian virtual emergency management community.  

One aspect social media that I like to talk about to skeptical emergency managers is its ability to facilitate professional development. This isn’t just true of emergency managers but for all professions.  David Carr of the New York  Times described in an NPR interview the role social networks play in his ability to understand what information is important. “It serves to edit what’s going on in the world, and it puts a human curation on this huge fire hose of data that’s washing over us all,” he says. “The question becomes where to look, and it’s nice to have some other people pointing the way.”  It always makes me disheartened to hear about public agencies that have completely walled off access to these sites for staff out of fear that people will waste time or compromise the computer system. That kind of fear really demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the value these tools can provide.

Governments do recognize the need to share information, however, and one way around the wall has been the emergence of online communities of practice. The Department of Homeland Security has a secure portal for their community of emergency management and public safety professionals called First Responders Communities of Practice, but I really like the example from Canada in PTSC because the website is open for all to see, e.g. no secure login and password to forget!

PTSC is a member driven, interactive online community that integrates social media, online profiles, blogs, discussion groups, a knowledge based wiki, spaces for private sector suppliers and students, that all serve to facilitate the sharing of information and collaboration.  It is sponsored by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, but the focus is geared toward all response organizations. Take a moment to watch their video posted above.

The SMEM twitter community will recognize one familiar face on the site: Patrice Cloutier. Patrice is a mainstay in SMEM–the hardest working advocate I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and the mastermind of many projects including this December list. As Cherly Bledsoe at sm4em.org pointed out (and gave a really big hint for me or James Garrow) he would never put himself on the list of the best of SMEM, it would not be complete without him. Not only is he active in PTSC, but he is also a lead contributor to the Emergency2.0 wiki in Australia, a member of the CrisisCommons management team, a full time crisis communications specialist in Canada,  and finally the writer of his own blog, Crisis Command Post. Honestly, I can’t keep up!

I acknowledge that my December Best-of-SMEM List has very few item under the tree, therefore,  I will be rounding out the top twelve every day for the next eight. Be sure to check back and send me your suggestions!

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. 

SMEM Report Recommendation: Education and Knowledge sharing are needed.

Post by: Kim Stephens

The CNA report entitled “Social Media + Emergency Management Camp: Transforming the Response Enterprise” was written by Dr. Clarence Wardell and Yee San Su  in order to document the findings from the first-ever SMEM camp, and almost more importantly, to explore how social media and emerging communication technologies are changing the way we disseminate and receive information before, during and after a crisis. (See this blog post by Heather Blanchard of  Crisis Commons’ that summarize the report and the SMEM effort in general.)


The authors offer 3 key findings and six recommendations for moving forward if we would like to see widespread adoption of social networking by the emergency management community. One of the six recommendations is the need for continued education and knowledge sharing. Specifically the authors state that we need to

“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.”

As the authors indicate, in this early stage of the use of social networking as a tool for crisis communications, there are still many unsettled questions that can pose significant challenges to adoption. This includes a lack of clarity with regard to laws, policy and guidance. The authors state, that we are in a “Wild West situation, as the available technology has surpassed the rules and guidance that are currently in place.”

However, with that being said, there are many organizations that are using these tools in creative ways and we can measure their success  based on their own stated goals and objectives. Even though there are no formally recognized and accepted  “best practices” we are certainly starting to understand the value these organizations are gaining from using these tools. Informally, many of us, including myself, often find organizations that are doing great work in this area and promote these efforts as best practice examples. As Dr. Wardell inferred, highlighting these successes will help us create “buy-in and subsequent adoption and investment [from other] organizations.”

Knowledge Sharing

As forerunning agencies use social networking tools on a daily basis and during real-world disaster events, they are also learning effective strategies. The sharing of that knowledge is invaluable.  Nonetheless, as the technology and adoption rate matures,  I do expect that we will also need to have better answers to the following questions:

  • What does an effective public safety SM presence look like?
  • What metrics can be used to determine success?
  • How can we measure impact–e.g. what are the “outcomes” versus the “outputs”?

Furthermore, knowledge sharing does not necessarily have to take place in a conference or a formal setting. Hundreds of emergency management professionals engage in knowledge sharing on this topic on a daily basis on twitter via the #SMEM hashtag.  There are also many emerging sources of information, including blogs and wikis specifically for this topic. For instance, see the Emergency 2.0 Wiki from Australia whose stated purpose is to “share and advance knowledge, by providing best practice guidelines on how to utilize social media in all phases of emergency communications.”  These guidelines, when fully fleshed out, will provide an amazing resource for all public safety organizations. 

Discussion Points

In the meantime,  below I list some of the more important questions most people raise when discussing social media usage for crisis communications. As you will notice, these discussion points relate to processes, internal procedures, goals and objectives, NOT how to use specific tools. The social networks may change (e.g tumblr versus facebook) but organizations can build structures, policies and procedures that enable them to engage on any social platform. (Each of these subjects are addressed, to some extent, in the CNA report.)

  • Why should public safety organizations use these tools? (e.g. Is there a broad use of social networks in your community? Does your local news media expect to receive information via social networks? )
  • What are your organization’s stated goals for public outreach (no matter what tool you utilize) in each phase of the emergency continuum? This will ultimately help determine if the effort is successful.
  • What resources (human and technical) are necessary to implement a social media campaign during each phase of a crisis?
  • What resources are available to augment your staff in a crisis–e.g. virtual support?
  • Who in your organization should be using the tools on a daily basis and who should be using the tools during a crisis?
  • How have other public safety organizations structured themselves to rapidly update SM content in a crisis? How have they integrated these efforts with other agencies and channels? How does this relate to the Incident Command System?
  • How can public safety organizations collect, sort, and verify data from social networks to provide real-time situational awareness?
  • What policies need to be changed or adjusted in your organization in order to allow for personnel to use these tools?
  • What is the policy regarding publicly provided content? This relates to both storage of the data for FOIA purposes, and how to deal with comments, questions and concerns raised through these platforms.
  • What are some effective strategies for reaching the intended audience with preparedness, response and recovery messages? (Strategies do change during each phase.)

As a side note, the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) has contracted with Mantitou, Inc. to develop social media training. The company is in the early data collection stage and has asked the SMEM community to assist them in their effort by providing the following:

  •  best practices in utilization of social media in all phases of emergency management;
  •  examples of measured impact from use of social media;
  • challenges and solutions or approaches to implementing and advancing use of social media within emergency management organizations.

(If you are interested in providing content for this effort let me know and I can pass that info along to their team.)

To view the CNA  report and its resources you can click to http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/wiki/SMEM_Initiative or the below links: