Credit: Marvin Neuman/FEMA
Perhaps due to the location of Super Storm Sandy and the incredibly media savvy and connected population in New York and New Jersey, social media quickly became the story as images of flooding and damage were immediately publicized. In Sandy’s aftermath, international groups of emergency managers focusing on the use of social media in disasters discussed some of the lessons learned. As Jenny Sokatch of the DHS Lessons Learned Information Sharing System explains, “These chats (as well as the #smem hashtag) helped us identify creative ideas and innovative practices used during Sandy that we may not have originally included in our lessons learned information sharing system, LLIS.gov.”
Key Concepts Developing out of Lessons Learned
The following key concepts were refined from the discussions:
Lesson: Residents will use social media to ask for emergency assistance. Nationally, many agencies seem to solely use social media to push information to the public rather than utilizing social media to engage and communicate with the community, especially during emergencies. Agencies often warn citizens not to use social media to report emergencies. During Sandy, the New York City Fire Department tweeted: “Do not tweet emergency calls. Please call 911.” Other agencies even go so far as to block two-way communication on social media.
In practice, when people are desperate and faced with a busy signal on 911, they turn to social media for assistance. The question is whether agencies are prepared to handle emergencies reported by social media. Are agencies listening? Are they redirecting information, providing just-in-time safety information or even lifesaving information? Do they have a process to pass along messages to dispatch or to reevaluate their policies to better handle the issue of emergency information coming through social media?
As we advance toward a text-and video-capable 911 system, these issues are likely to become even more important. Many agencies need to re-evaluate their policies for handling emergency or urgent messages and might consider establishing a plan to listen and route messages through their EOC or even dispatch systems.
Lesson: Act quickly while cell towers, smartphones and mobile friendly solutions are still available. Agencies that were quick to react on social media were able to send out their most critical messages prior to major cell towers losing power (and thus failing). Agencies must be prepared to deliver messages quickly, which may mean reevaluating an agency’s approval process or may require pre-approved messages pre-scripted in advance of a disaster.
Additionally, many agencies attached links to social media messages that directed readers to basic and not mobile-friendly web pages. Mobile device-friendly web pages optimize graphics to make information clearer and easier to read. These pages can be independent mobile websites or use a responsive design so that web pages scale in proportion to a user’s screen size. When power and wireless Internet resources are limited, the best solution to ensure speedy delivery of messages may mean sending several messages in a row that communicate the complete message rather than pointing the user to a website. Additionally, when planning recovery operations, ensure proper agreements are in place to quickly mobilize cells on wheels and mobile charging stations.
Lesson: Expect that spontaneous volunteers will show up and organize without you. As citizen groups increase social capital through online networking, agencies must engage the community in a variety of social media platforms and respond to a need they see in the community because they are listening to social media. In order to do so as a field, we may need to be more aware of how to reach and communicate with these networked groups to help everyone achieve the same goal. Independent groups can do phenomenal things and, in a major disaster, coordinating with community stakeholders will always be challenging.
During Sandy, the “Occupy” movement rebranded itself as “Occupy Sandy” and put its social media muscle to work. It was through the movement’s knowledge of social media and listening to the needs of the community that they were able to coordinate their response. In fact, newspapers reported their novel use of an Amazon.com wish list to allow purchases for needed items to be shipped and distributed by volunteers.
Agencies that listen intently to the community and engage them in dialogue can motivate volunteer actions. In this way, social media can serve as a force multiplier – not only as a communications tool, but also as a response and recovery apparatus.
Lesson: Pinterest and Instagram became new communication tools. Communicating the severity of disasters using only words takes a talented wordsmith. However, the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” was quite literal during Sandy. As people sought to emotionally connect with their friends, neighbors and family members, they sent photos via social media. Two social media platforms, Pinterest and Instagram, gained instant notoriety through the sharing of digital images. Both platforms have the ability to search for images tagged by a user, and Instagram uses the same hashtag system as Twitter, which makes images easier to find. Even if your agency is not using these tools to share images, training social media staff on how to conduct searches of images can be useful for situation status updates, the common operating picture, and the general condition as reported by residents of a community and survivors of a disaster.
While most people share photos to tell their story of a disaster, there are other nefarious individuals who used photos to create rumors. Use of photos and verification techniques was mentioned in our last IAEM Bulletin article (February 2013, page 6), although it is useful to note that reverse photo tools are available to identify misleading and patently false photos. Agencies should be prepared to verify photos and have a system in place to communicate the authenticity of a photo – or any rumor for that matter. Agencies should consider practicing the use of reverse look-up photo tools to identify the source of an image. Identify an agency policy or resource on where and how to communicate about false pictures and how you may use authentic pictures as actionable intelligence.
It is worth noting that social media is in fact social, and the majority of users take great offense at intentional dishonesty. As such, they will often come to the aid of an agency calling out erroneous information. Do not fear incorrect information in social media, but do have a plan to report rumors and communicate accurate information quickly.
Lesson: Use of crisis mapping and crowdsourcing tools is critical. Every disaster includes limited resources and a need to effectively distribute the resources that are available. During Sandy, the fuel supply was limited and it was difficult for survivors to identify gas stations with an adequate supply. Utilizing a variety of crowd-sourced methods, including data from apps, Google mapping and others, workers and volunteers were able to map data of available resources and keep it updated with timely and relevant information.
Agencies should consider working with information technology support and GIS partners to identify mapping solutions for the types of disaster scenarios in your agency’s plan. Free mapping tools and crowdsourcing programs, such as Google Crisis Response Mapping, Ushahidi and Creative Commons, are the future of emergency management.
Social media plans and policies should be reviewed frequently to ensure that your agency’s intentions for using social media during disasters matches the needs of the community. There is a great deal of information on Sandy available from Lessons Learned Information Sharing (www.llis.dhs.gov), where you will find additional reports on technology used during the storm.
About the Authors
This article, written by Mary Jo Flynn, CEM, Emergency Management Assistant Director, Anaheim (Calif.) Fire & Rescue Department, and Todd Jasper, Associate Director, MSA, Inc, Chevy Chase, Md., previously appeared in the March 2013 IAEM Bulletin as a peer-reviewed contribution by the IAEM-USA Emerging Technology Caucus. If you have any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn about the work of the International Association of Emergency Managers at www.iaem.com.