A social media monitoring tool developed last year by Pierce County, Wash., got its first real-world use last month during search and rescue efforts following the massive mudslide in Washington State.

Known as the FirstToSee Emergency Support System, the tool was used to search Twitter for the word “missing,” and relevant tweets were provided to emergency response officials. Pierce County IT Director Linda Gerull says it's too early to gauge what impact the new technology had on efforts to rescue victims of the massive slide that hit rural Oso, Wash., March 22. So far, 33 people are confirmed dead and a dozen are still missing.

The monitoring system leverages existing social media technologies to "greatly improve emergency preparedness and management" in the Puget Sound region, according to Pierce County. Gerull said the idea for the FirstToSee system was developed by local emergency management professionals after noticing the public flocking to social media outlets to report incidents during times of crisis.

“This is not a replacement for 911,” she said. “It is used for non-life-threatening calls and allows us to see reports of flooding, what roads are closed and where there are trees down.”

The new system is the result of a $550,000 Homeland Security Grant from the federal government and was developed by staff from Pierce County and the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Economic Region Foundation.

Gerull said FirstToSee uses the Ushahidi Platform, which is designed for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping, according to Ushahidi.com. Among its features is the creation of a dynamic timeline that allows an agency to track reports on a map over a period of time, and also permits data to be filtered to see when and where specific incidents have occurred.

According to a FirstToSee white paper, responders use the technology to view large amounts of data from popular social media sites. Data is then compiled and placed into filterable and editable categories. A tabular view lists abbreviated data in expandable columns and gives the status and priority of each listing while a map view provides a real-time overview of locations and incident types.

An integral part of FirstToSee is a mobile app that allows the public to communicate directly with first responders. During times of crisis, the public is often the first to witness an incident and mobile technology allows for rapid reporting. The app allows users to send emergency reports and photos via smartphone or tablet. These reports are available near real time in the FirstToSee portal.

“When you go back six or eight years ago, we were faxing information out to news agencies, and then moved to email and posting information on our websites,” Gerull said. “This is now the next transition to information that can be provided instantly.”

According to the American Red Cross, citizens have become heavily reliant on social media sites to communicate during an emergency. The organization says 80 percent of people expect agencies to use social media to make announcements or respond to public concerns during disasters.

FirstToSee was successfully tested in May 2013, but it was put into action for the first time in March during search and rescue efforts following the massive landslide in Oso, Wash., that killed as many as 33 people. The system was set to search Twitter for the word “missing” and relevant tweets were provided to emergency response officials.

Gerull says it's too early to tell what impact the new technology had on the search and recovery efforts.

However, the power of using social media for communications and situational awareness was demonstrated in several recent events. When Hurricane Sandy roared ashore on the East Coast in October 2012, the Red Cross reviewed more than 2 million posts and tweets using keyword searches. This effort had an impact on emergency response operations as 229 of those posts were sent to mass care teams and 88 resulted in responders shifting the focus of on-the-ground operations.

Besides monitoring social networks for incidents requiring immediate response from emergency personnel, Gerull said government agencies using Facebook, Twitter and other similar outlets can see false information that may be circulating in the public domain. Officials are then able to quickly respond and correct misinformation.

A prime example of this took place during a flood in Queensland, Australia, during 2011.

Government officials there used Facebook and Twitter to make official announcements and quell rumors. While Queensland had built trust with social media users prior to the disaster, its Facebook followers increased from a few thousand to more than 100,000 at the height of the crisis.

Going forward, as the role of social media expands among government agencies responding to a crisis, there will be a greater need for training and preparation.

“There will be a need to build the ‘business process’ and sort out ahead of time what types of hashtags will be used and plan how information will be sent out,” Gerull said. “There also may be a need to develop procedures around the use of social media as well.”

Officials also need to stay flexible and focus on keywords that are being used by the public during an incident. This was particularly important with the recent Oso mudslide.

“Watching what was trending the highest on Twitter told us to use the ‘#530slide’ hashtag, which was receiving 15 times more tweets than the ‘#OSOslide’ hashtag,” Gerull recalled. “Knowing the trend gave us the best social media situational awareness.”

Greg Sleter  |  Contributing Writer

For more than 20 years, Greg Sleter has worked as a professional journalist holding positions in several editorial leadership roles on the print and digital sides of the business. He most recently was a Regional Editor with AOL’s Patch.com. Prior to his time at Patch, he spent a decade with ICD Publications in New York serving in lead editorial roles on HomeWorld Business and Hotel Business Design. Sleter also has expertise in digital journalism, social media, public relations and marketing.