With each emergency, the public’s use of social media increases and it becomes more apparent that government officials and emergency managers need to devise ways to not only respond to questions posted on these platforms, but also use them to glean information that can aid situational awareness.

Anaheim, Calif.’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is showing how this can be done. Some of its members have been trained to help with the use of social media during emergencies and planned events. In 2009, Mary Jo Flynn saw social media as an emerging trend and got involved with the technology. Flynn, the assistant director of Anaheim’s Emergency Management and Preparedness Division, participates in Twitter chats about social media and emergency management, and it was during one of these discussions that she realized she already had access to a group of volunteers through CERT.

“Instead of creating a brand-new entity and then have to train that entity, vet them and make sure they are a fit for our organization, I would just take our existing volunteers who had that particular skill set, give them additional training and allow them to work with us,” she said.

During an emergency, Anaheim’s CERT members help staff the hotline room, a phone bank that residents can call to get emergency-related information like evacuation updates. The process that the hotline uses to provide the public with information was nearly identical to the process for receiving and replying to social media messages, Flynn said. “There’s just some skill sets that are different in terms of picking up a phone versus knowing how to search Twitter.”

For example, when a resident calls with a question, the information is vetted by the public information officer before it’s relayed to the caller. The same would be true for inquiries made via social media. Flynn said volunteers can reply with preapproved messages or publicly released information like American Red Cross shelter locations. They also work with the public information officer to get answers that align with the city’s message.

Flynn said Anaheim’s Emergency Operations Center uses the Incident Command structure, and during an incident, the trained volunteers will report to logistics, where they work as technical specialists in the planning section. This means they can be assigned to work anywhere in the organization. “So we have physically trusted agents in our organization who can collect social media data, images, video or whatever we may need and get it back to us for situational status awareness,” Flynn said.

In addition to using social media to help Anaheim during a response, Flynn said social media is important for allowing CERT volunteers to check in. This means using social media or other available communication tools to let their family and friends know they are OK if there is an emergency, as well as using the platforms to tell Flynn if they are available for an assignment. The CERT’s social volunteers also can help their online followers and friends by posting Anaheim’s messages on their personal accounts. Flynn described this function as “assisting the public information officer in amplifying messages.”

Although the social CERT members have only been activated for exercises and helped with planned events, the need to have social-savvy volunteers trained and ready to respond was made apparent recently. Last week, people started connecting directly with the department through Facebook about three arson fires. Multiple social media accounts were used to spread information; Facebook pages included Anaheim Fire & Rescue, Anaheim CERT and Anaheim RACES, and Twitter accounts included @AnaheimFire, @AnaheimCERT and @AnaheimPD.

“Between us and the Police Department, we were using social media to communicate with the public and they were expecting answers back,” she said. “It was manageable on my end, but a bigger disaster would require more personnel resources in order to manage that and that’s where the volunteers would come in.”

The social media volunteers are required to take IS-42, the Social Media in Emergency Management course that’s provided through the Emergency Management Institute. This class provides information about best practices including tools, techniques and how to build capabilities to use social media to support emergency response missions. Flynn also recommends that volunteers take the Social Media for Natural Disaster Response and Recovery class as it becomes available. That course, PER-304, is offered through the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center from the University of Hawaii. While IS-42 is a free online class, PER-304 is taught in person. Flynn said any agency can request through its state coordinator to have the class presented locally. She added that CaliforniaVolunteers, a state office, is interested in offering PER-304 early next year for "CERT programs throughout the state as a means of encouraging adoption and coordination of social media monitoring and service with CERT programs."

Flynn has embraced social media and identified its benefits for emergency management, but said its use isn't one-size-fits-all. “Tweak what you need to make it fit for your community or your volunteers.”

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.