Articles

Emergency Managers and First Responders Use Twitter and Facebook to Update Communities

Los Angeles Fire Department, Philadelphia Emergency Management among agencies using social networking to send breaking news and preparedness information.

by / July 26, 2009
Fire/Crisis Media Revolution Photo copyright iStockphoto

When you see the words "social media" or "Web 2.0," a fire department or emergency management office probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind -- or the second or third. You likely think first of people who use Facebook, Twitter and instant messenger to type and click about life, love, work and any other topic you can think of. But social networks aren't only tools for citizens to talk to friends who are two counties away about what they did last night. A city fire department can use them to inform the public about a traffic accident down the street, a tremor that hit hours ago or any number of other emergencies.

In May 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) informed the public about numerous incidents through Twitter, a free messaging platform that lets users post text message updates on the Internet, an action called "tweeting" or "twittering." The tweets are sent to other users, called "followers," who subscribe to them. Twitter members commonly post about their daily thoughts and activities in messages of 140 characters or less.

Brian Humphrey, the LAFD's public service officer, tweeted on May 17 at 8:41 p.m. about "a significant seismic event" that hit Greater Los Angeles area. This was followed by successive tweets throughout the night revealing more details, including the quake's magnitude. In another example, D'Lisa Davies, a department spokeswoman, tweeted on May 20 about a highway accident involving a hospital bus.

The department has multiple Twitter accounts, and the aforementioned tweets came from its @LAFD presence, which focuses on breaking news stories, alerts and advisories. That account had nearly 5,000 followers as of the end of June.

Emergency Management 2.0

According to Humphrey, the department's goal is to keep people from being cut off from information in a crisis, which he likens to what happened to Hurricane Katrina victims housed in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. The people trapped there couldn't reach the outside world, and the outside world couldn't reach them.

"The people at the Superdome were darn hungry. They were darn thirsty, but they were not dying from hunger or thirst," Humphrey said. "What they were dying from a little bit at a time was a lack of information. We were dying from a lack of information as well. We didn't know what was going on. It was a two-way lack of conversing."

The LAFD uses Web tools like Twitter to provide citizens an additional information pipeline whether or not catastrophe strikes.

"We think these tools represent a great opportunity for better situational awareness and a more timely response to the specific needs of those we proudly serve," Humphrey said.

The LAFD doesn't restrict its forays into social media to Twitter. The department has distributed video on YouTube, a video sharing site; posts updates on networking site Facebook, allowing users to share photos, videos, instant messages and other information over personalized networks; has a page on MySpace, another social networking site; uploads images of firefighters in action to image and video hosting site Flickr; bookmarks press releases, announcements and other communications on Del.icio.us, a site where people organize and categorize links; and belongs to Digg, a site for members to submit content that other members can rate in importance and comment upon.

Travel more than 2,500 miles away to Philadelphia, and you'll see the same enthusiasm for social media from Joan Przybylowicz, deputy director of external affairs and the public information officer for the Philadelphia Managing Director's Office of Emergency Management.

"We're just looking at different tools that

we can use to get public information out to people, whether it's preparedness information on a weekly basis or emergency information when the disaster happens," she said. "We just want as many tools in our pocket that we can utilize to get information out to the public."

Among these many tools is the Ready Philadelphia Facebook page, with nearly 400 fans. The page has had numerous updates since November 2008, including safety tips, emergency preparedness workshop notifications and other announcements -- and you don't have to be a Facebook user to see them. The office also has a YouTube channel, a blog and a MySpace page, and its Twitter account has garnered more than 1,000 followers since its first Sept. 10, 2008, tweet about National Preparedness Month.

Edward Vassallo, Ready Philadelphia coordinator, is responsible for the bulk of the office's social networking presence. Some might say he's a fitting initiator of a Web 2.0 endeavor, since he's not yet 30 and part of an age group famous for online proficiency. But he was newer to the game than one might think.

Photo: Ed Vassallo, ready coordinator, Philadelphia emergency management office

"I will admit that I didn't know what Twitter was until probably October of last year. And that was really the first site that we really signed up with, and then I started to research Facebook," he said. He also researched how other emergency management groups were using social media. "And it just sort of grew from there," he said.

It makes sense that jurisdictions would want to try these sites, because they're free to use.

"It's free, so why not take advantage of it if you have the staffing and the resources to do it?" Przybylowicz said.

An Expanding Online Wilderness

Daunting numbers of members of the general public have staked their own claims in the vast digital frontier.
According to the research organization Compete.com, more than 300 million people visited Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg and Del.ici.ous in April 2009. The company only counted each visitor once in spite of repeat visits to the same site within the month.

Further breakdown indicates that:

  • 104.1 million visited Facebook;
  • 77.8 million visited YouTube;
  • 55.6 million visited MySpace;
  • 37.8 million visited Digg;
  • 25.9 million visited Flickr;
  • 19.4 million visited Twitter; and
  • 520,000 visited Del.icio.us

Consequently organizations might be remiss not to use these social networks to get the word out. Federal heavyweights like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have Twitter accounts, but not specifically for emergency alerts. FEMA tweets news items like disaster recovery center relocations and closings, and the CDC tweets about press releases as well as breaking updates like the latest number of reported swine flu cases.

Some agencies like the Mesa, Ariz., Fire Department use Web 2.0 even when there aren't emergencies. Marrisa Ramirez-Ramos, the public information officer of the department's Fire and Life Safety Education group, spearheaded the effort to embrace Web 2.0.

"It's kind of overwhelming when you're going to put out your first piece of information and you really don't have anybody following you or anything. But in January, we started sending out information," she said.

Photo: Marrisa Ramirez-Ramos, public information officer, Mesa, Ariz., Fire Department

Although the department is relatively new to social media, its efforts haven't gone unnoticed by others. Mesa Fire has amassed more than 400 followers on Twitter since its first January 28 link to a tip sheet advertising Burn Awareness Week. The department also has a YouTube channel containing more than a dozen public service announcements.

Fortunately for the city, there hasn't been a need to tweet about catastrophes so far.

"We haven't really had an opportunity yet to use it for any emergency preparedness-type situation, crisis or a disaster. We have used it to promote awareness months or weeks that happen, like this Burn Awareness Week or Fire Prevention Month," Ramirez-Ramos said. "We've also done volunteer recruitment."

Ready Philadelphia saw its share of action in the spring when the office declared a snow emergency on March 1. Vassallo posted information to social networking sites as it was being disseminated to the press.

"Citizens were taking the information that I was posting and posting it themselves to their followers on Twitter," he said of an activity called re-tweeting. "We got a lot of messages in return thanking us for the information that we were putting out."

But neither jurisdiction can top the LAFD's activity during wildfires that swept Southern California two years ago.

Communicating in Chaos

On May 8, 2007, the region experienced a wind-driven wildfire in 4,210-acre Griffith Park, the largest city park in the country. The blaze burned 800 acres, in Humphrey's estimation.

Because he'd been active on Twitter since March that year, he saw others tweeting about it, some of whom were located on the side of the blaze opposite firefighters.

"They were talking about the movement of firebrands or embers and the wind conditions on their side," he said.

Humphrey sent a direct message to the tweeters asking them to call him by phone. They did, and he obtained information that helped the firefighters on the ground deal with the blaze.

"We were able to send personnel to that distant side of the fire to see how the fire had advanced, and the people were describing a unique weather condition -- that the fire was creating its own windstorm," he said.

The firefighters were alerted of those on-the-ground weather conditions.

According to Humphrey, his department's use of social media tools -- and input from both the public and public employees -- are examples of crowdsourcing: using the efforts of the unpaid public -- the crowd -- for business practices.

Sometimes, however, there may be a language barrier between citizens and emergency management personnel.

"If the average citizen sends a tweet saying there's flooding on the First Street underpass, does that mean that there's an inch of water? Two inches of water? Ten inches of water? Ten feet of water?" said Michael Byrne, senior vice president of ICF International, a company that partners with the public and private sectors to implement technology solutions. He leads the company's business with national security groups.

Collective Intelligence

There are concerns about the reliability of information coming from citizens who are untrained in disaster communication.

"They're very concerned that the information that's flowing is going to be inaccurate and filled with rumors, that people are going to be intentionally trying to put out malicious information and misleading people," said Jeannette Sutton, a research coordinator at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Natural Hazards Center.

Sutton and her colleagues conducted research on the public's use of social media in catastrophes and wrote the report Collective Intelligence in Disaster: Examination of the Phenomenon in the Aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting. According to the report, emergency managers and others who are responsible for the control and flow of crisis information, are concerned with how

uninformed citizens using Web 2.0 can harm the process.

"It's not hierarchical," Sutton said. "Nobody's in charge. It's decentralized. It's lateral. People are distributed across the country as they're sharing information, and emergency managers have said over and over again, 'How do we control this information?'"

The information can't be controlled, Sutton said, but it can be studied. She also is co-author of six reports examining the public's use of social media in extreme conditions, and she has faith in how humanity uses these tools. Sutton said she doesn't have much evidence of people posting inaccurate or purposely false information on social networks in disasters.

"Students and other people got onto Facebook, and they used what we called collective intelligence to solve problems," she said.

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior-year university student at the time, killed 32 and injured 17 students and faculty on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University before he committed suicide. Sutton discovered in her research that people communicating on Facebook found out information that authorities had yet to release.

"They were able to identify the names of all the people who were killed before the officials released the names," she said.

The researchers followed discussion threads on the walls of various Facebook groups, and reprinted some of the posts from the "I'm ok at VT" group. On the day of the shooting, group members posted messages disclosing the names of victims, which posters discovered via their own knowledge or from other Facebook sites. The researchers used victims' initials instead of their real names and gave pseudonyms to discussion participants. The report concluded that social media participants operated out of respect for the dead and traumatized, and produced accurate finding, not rumor-mongering.

"Following all of the different kinds of events, we largely see an outpouring of altruism in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and this goes counter to those ideas of looting and other kinds of antisocial behavior that people are going to try to profit or gain from something," Sutton said.

Photo: Jeannette Sutton, research coordinator, University of Colorado at Boulder's Natural Hazards Center

However, Sutton admits that social media can be hotspots for information that doesn't have anything to do with fact-finding. Texting, blogging and tweeting about fears, sadness or concern for others aren't furthering the cause of concrete intelligence gathering.

Opportunity abounds for further research. ICF's Byrne has facilitated workshops devoted to Web 2.0's impact on disaster communications, and Sutton is conducting research during her personal time about the use of Twitter in disasters, which hasn't been the subject of a formal, fully funded study as far as she knows.

"It's moving so quickly -- the evolution of the use of these technologies," Sutton said. "People are signing on so fast, and there are more and more people gravitating toward these new technologies."

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.