Over the past several months with developing a social media strategy for the International Disaster Response Network, we have already seen our fair share of disasters.

From the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake  to The Japan earthquake and tsunami to even more recently, the multiple tornadoes and floods striking the interior of the United States, we have seen an explosion of social media use to respond to such tragic events.

With this, I am fascinated how social media platforms like Twitter have continued to lead the way with not only breaking the news, but also with helping shape the news.

Yet still, as this emerging use of 2.0 tools continues to spread globally within the disaster response and preparedness community, there are many things yet to be established in order to fully maximize the potential of a world virally connected in times of tragedy.

To better understand both benefits and pitfalls of using these tools for disaster response and preparedness, I recently reached out to early adapters within this online community to find out what they thought.

With this, here is a sample of some of my findings:

To best set the stage and understand the experience level and role with which these early adapters have played, let’s look at what is their role in the disaster response community?

  • Emergency management education.
  • My role is to assure food and water is distributed in the event a disaster, and to communicate where and how those resources are to be distributed.
  • Deputy Director
  • None. Active citizen. I’m a required person in the IT department anytime a disaster happens
  • Volunteer with Humanity Road, Inc. and Standby Task Force
  • Responder. Paramedic / Firefighter
  • first responder, non-profit
  • I am a Public Information Officer for a Sheriff’s Office and also for an Incident Management Team in Kansas.
  • Provincial coordination of emergency information
  • Fire Chief and Emergency Management
  • Tweet local incidents heard over the scanner or RT from locals that notify me
  • Chief officer with a city fire department.
  • Trained Disaster First Responder in a volunteer capacity
  • Business Continuity & Recovery Planner

Next, I was curious as to how social media has impacted what they do?

  • We now include sessions on the use of social media across our range of education programs.
  • My connection with critical partners is greatly improved by social media.
  • We are still investigating the use of social media
  • Helps me learn and think through different solutions.
  • It has enabled Humanity Road to reach a global audience with disaster preparation tips, thereby empowering the public to know what they can do to survive until more help arrives. During a disaster, social media allows us to more quickly assess needs on the ground and connect those with aid to those who need it. Crisis mapping by Standby Task Force helps governments, NGOs and others aggregate verified sources of crucial information needed for response. Crowd maps empower local communities in a disaster by consolidating both needs and offers of assistance.
  • Mainly in the street-level PR roll. I use in to sent out information to community members, ie. hazardous conditions, special events, etc.
  • It has helped me connect with other organizations and official channels
  • SM has assisted in operational awareness and has allowed the PIO to take a faster and more diverse look at what is happening in the community. It allows PIO’s to have a wider and unfettered voice to the community without the filter of the media. It has helped spread quality information in a quick manner.
  • Has forced us to be more responsive, faster and monitor conversations among our audiences
  • New tool to provide information to public as well as get quick snapshot of the event as to magnitude, text and photos.
  • Helps me inform locals in my community quickly
  • Push out information as information comes in. Follow other media, public safety agencies, and tweeters for intelligence and information for local and regional events.
  • Increased situational awareness. Allowed to connect to the community at large to use them as sensors. Rapid feedback loop for your messaging. Wide Amplification of agency and other’s messages
  • used SM to add to situational awareness, understand citizen issues and deliver key messages

This of course naturally leads to asking about using social media for disaster response, in this, I asked what their TOP 3 concerns were?

  • Ensuring that social media information is accessed and used within ECCs and ICCs. Dispelling EM industry fear about the use and misuse of social media. The stability and continuity of networks.
  • That the medium works in the event of a disaster/emergency. That through the din of all the chatter doing on in the social media world during disaster, my message is heard. That social media is a relevant media for disaster response
  • Misinformation being put on the site Time it takes to monitor the sites How many people have access to the sites
  • Fake groups or news. Mobilizing people to the wrong areas or overloading NGOs. Not enough information.
  • 1. Verification of information. At Humanity Road, we always “verify x 2”, sometimes more, before taking action. 2. Reluctance by government agencies to embrace social media, although this is starting to change. 3. The ability to communicate needs by using social media during a disaster is faster than the ability of many agencies to respond to those needs, due to agencies’ rigid structures. In today’s 2.0 world, people expect instant results which simply are not possible.
  • 1. Information Accuracy.
  • 1. verifying the information / trusting source 2. timeliness of information – emergency notifications can become re-broadcast on SM so the information may no longer be helpful/pertinent/safe
  • 1 – That accurate information is being pushed 2 – That the PIO is responding to people in a timely manner 3 – That is is being used during a disaster and that official pages are in place PRIOR to a disaster.
  • resiliency of the SM platforms, rumor control and security
  • 1. Accuracy of information 2. Effective delivery to specific audience 3. For public safety to realize that social media is not the only solution to emergency notifications
  • *Ensuring CORRECT information is given *Ensuring the community is aware of resources (and alternative if primary resources are not available) to access in event of disaster *Ensuring local community has an organized, established plan in place
  • 1) Hacked or misinformation put out by uniformed 2) Capacity for social/economic challenged groups to use social media – are we pushing out information to right or white demographics? 3) Will SM system be reliable when power is out, Will cell phone towers are down?
  • Stability (will it be there when I need it) Frequent capacity issues. Will tool survive the start-up cycle. Security (is the information valid, or old or malicious) Filtering (how do I find the information I really need in a sea of noise)
  • approval for messaging balancing speed with accuracy monitoring/mapping filters

Certainly in a world where information is everywhere and flying past us at speeds never before seen, there will always be room for error and misinformation. In that, I want to park that thought for a few moments and come back to how we can best address these concerns a little bit later.

Right now, I want to get to the other side of these concerns… the benefits.

So, I asked the early adapters my next question.. with using social media for disaster response, what are the TOP 3 benefits?

  • An astoundingly useful source of information. A way of engaging with communities of the affected which builds trust and reciprocity. A way of building community relationships beyond response and into mitigation and planning.
  • Speed of message Accuracy or clarity of message Distribution of message
  • Ability to put information out quickly to a large and growing population Ability to correct misinformation The ability to track how many people are using the sites
  • Help people with skills, supplies or able hands to come help. Teach others what to do. Provide Information and kill rumors.
  • 1. Real-time communication between victims and responders. 2. More rapid response, even if the response is “we hear you and we’re working on it.” 3. More transparency, more “community” compassion and support on a global level.
  • 1. Quick dissemination of important information 2. Great reach to the public
  • 1. more likely to receive emergency notifications 2. easier to find opportunities to offer help to victims 3, public education
  • 1 – An increased pulse on the communities information needs. 2 – A one to many voice from the official responders 3 – Intelligence gathering
  • larger, faster reach to audiences, ability to hear what’s being said about response to better meet local needs, ability to help shape public perception of response
  • 1. Quick dissemination of information and shared to others through their trusted communities 2. Provides notifications to audiences often missed 3. Can be used for both input and output
  • Immediate information accessible to public Establishing a “real time” flow of information and feedback between emergency responders & public
  • Easy to push out info. Can send pictures and give snapshots in time; I can talk to @JosiahBartllett (fictional characters) and feel like I am getting help.
  • Immediate (Real Time) Engage with the public (Feedback loop) Amplification of your agency messages
  • a. 1000s of in field sensors b. situational awareness can begin to form before officers get on scene c. message penetration

So how good is the disaster response community from both public and private sectors at with harnessing the power of social media to connect the dots to prepare, save, and restore both lives and communities?

Now, remember those concerns we listed a few questions back? Let’s “unpark” that thought and see what are early adapters think are the best ways to address these concerns…

  • As a new generation of emergency management personnel move into the industry the issue will solve itself. For the most part the EM industry is made up of fifty-something, white males who view community engagement with trepidations. As time moves on that generation will be replaced with people who expect that communication and engagement are a normal part of their work.
  • We need to educate folks in the disaster response business about the uses of SM. I need to communicate with others in the Food community that I use the SM medium for communication and show them how to use it.
  • Better internet coverage throughout the country – especially in the Northern regions Continued promotion of social media and proper protocols for usage by the public and by government and business
  • Use red cross, salvation army and other local news / NGOs
  • Governments and NGOs need to move faster to train their management and staff on the use of social media, and have staff that are able to respond 24/7 in social media, particularly Twitter, so people know they are paying attention.
  • Advertise that information is available on Social Media platforms during disaster events.
  • not sure, timestamps maybe, an easily recognizable acronym for member orgs
  • Education to first responders, elected officials and communicators on the benefits of SM.
  • use multiple SM platforms, increase SM monitoring and apply sound security policies
  • 1. Have accurate info before sending 2. Know which audiences benefit from social media 3. Understand how social media compliments other information delivery platforms and utilize all
  • Create organized groups with action plans within each community Ensuring community is AWARE of social media’s resources AND back up resources to turn to ….
  • Offer free SM to areas with poor demographics; Support infrastructure for cell, 3G data transfer.
  • Insure your social media process takes into account the constantly changing applications. Train users on how to crowd source to validate info. Develop better meta filter tools
  • Awareness of monitoring/filtering tools Increased trust/understanding of social media tools

I love it when we can both not only point out our concerns, but then offer some ideas as to how best we can address these concerns.

So, now what? How do we propose putting this altogether to effectively connect viral toolsets with human needs?

As a disaster response online community, what are the TOP 3 things we can do to best prepare our local and global communities for disaster?

  • Build the relationships via social media before response is required, so that a trusted community exists. Education, education, education. Good examples and case studies.
  • Test our systems Educate people how to use the medium Continue active and deep discussions about what constitutes Best Practices in disaster response
  • Teach emergency preparedness, stressing the importance of being able to self sustain for at least 1 week Emphasize the importance of business continuity planning to government and business organizations Improve infrastructure so that more people have access to social media.
  • Practice. Vet. more groups. Create hashtags and websites for bloggers. Gov. publications have to be right. People can be honest.
  • 1. Tweet links to disaster preparedness information. Follow @humanityroad and @redcrossdog for examples of how we help prepare people and pet owners. 2. Publish disaster preparedness articles and publish the links in Twitter and Facebook. 3. Let people know that it is the “small” emergencies, like house fires, that make it important to learn disaster preparedness. Most people have a kind of “denial” that catastrophic disaster will happen to them; consequently, they don’t prepare. But if they first learn how to assemble a basic evacuation kit in the event of a small emergency, it’s a step toward being prepared for a big one.
  • Teach – Teach – Teach!
  • educate,educate,educate embrace social media, especially video
  • Education on preparedness and where to go for accurate information and official information.
  • create more links, create a virtual operations support team (VOST), use data/mapping created by citizens and volunteers
  • 1. Communicate the need to prepare in advance and be self sufficient – change the cultural expectation 2. Provide timely and accurate information to the public 3. Create a comprehensive community strategy to prepare, respond, mitigate and recover
  • Create a community group dedicated to formulating and establishing plans of action in event of disaster EDUCATE and INFORM on an ongoing basis, resources community can access
  • develop plan for self for self share with neighbors Develop neighborhood needs list
  • Change the messaging to fit the psychological influences that deter preparedness. Train users in the proper use of social media. Build LOCAL capacity for resilience.
  • practice develop online presence develop pre planned messaging/maps

At IDRN, we are working to combine our already global disaster preparedness training with bringing understanding to these same people as to how best they can utilize the various social media platforms available to mobilize, educate, connect, and empower both their communities as well as their world.

With this, what discussion would be complete without asking these experts as to which platforms they feel are the best for disaster response and preparedness out of the most widely used platforms available to us today.

Of course utilizing platforms like Ushahidi for crowdsource mapping has become a critical tool to connect ground intelligence with resource providers and logistics managers.

Another great tool that I have been using to help frame a snapshot narrative of both storyline and need within an article format is Storify. Here’s a link to an independent story I put together using Storify to provide an immediate snapshot of the social media dialogue after the recent Joplin tornado. I say independent as I ran a beta test of Storify on this story independent of IDRN.

However, in moving forward, it will become a part of our toolkit when seeking to provide a snapshot narrative from real time updates on the ground.

With IDRN, we have been honored to be able to conduct disaster preparedness training all over the world via an international coalition of private sector networks, organizations, and members. In the process, we are closing in on badging nearly 3,000 people who have gone through our courses.

For more info on who we are and what we do, please find us online at:




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