Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Times of Crisis

Emergency managers are increasingly tapping social media to connect with communities.

by / August 15, 2011

When the skies dumped 20.2 inches of snow on Chicago in February 2011 — the third-largest storm in the city’s history — emergency managers rushed to their computers.

Using a combination of Facebook and a homegrown texting system called “Notify Chicago,” managers pumped out a steady stream of information on school closures, city services, weather updates, car towing and, eventually, cleanup efforts.

“This gave us the ability to communicate quickly and effectively,” said Roderick Drew, director of media affairs for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. “It allowed us to tell people to exercise caution, to not travel unless they had to [and] to leave work early if they had to go to work. We needed to let them know that this was not a run-of-the-mill snowstorm.”

Drew’s office is not alone in its efforts to harness the power of social media in times of crisis. Across the nation, emergency managers are striving to tweet their way into the public eye and to put their best Facebook forward.

About 20 percent of the emergency management community is involved in some form of social media, according to Kim Stephens, a senior associate at Abt Associates and creator of the blog iDisaster 2.0.

Some 550 emergency management offices have a presence on Facebook, including  many state offices.

“It all boils down to having an avenue for communications,” Stephens said. “If you look at the way people are communicating with each other, they don’t watch the news, especially the younger generation,” Stephens said. “They are looking for content when and where they want it. If you are not in that space, you are missing an opportunity.”

What is the opportunity, exactly?

WhoTube? YouTube

For Adam Crowe, social media offers the opportunity to put a human face on the emergency management community, while simultaneously showing what the work is worth. “We wanted to give people some sense of what they are getting from the city, where their tax dollars are going,” said Crowe, assistant director of community preparedness in Johnson County, Kan., population 560,000.

Crowe is bringing emergency management home to citizens with YouTube, via a channel he uses to push out messages on a wide range of public issues.

His office usually interviews a duty officer during severe weather and puts the video online.

When the local media conducts an emergency management interview, Crowe’s team is right alongside recording the interview, using a home video camera and $60 editing software. They then broadcast it on YouTube. Crowe has even used YouTube to run light-hearted public service ads through its Preparedness Piggy campaign. (For holiday cheer, the pig presents the 12 Days of Preparedness at www.youtube

“YouTube is a prime way for us to put a face on emergency management,” he said.

There’s some care and feeding here: Crowe needs a team to shoot the YouTube installments, edit the video and upload the content. For some, social media is a way to get an even quicker hit, something thin and simple to steer people toward further details.

As executive director at the Salt Lake Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), Alicia D. Johnson works with 17 municipalities. To communicate with these municipalities online, she needs a single, consolidated means to push out a lot of information easily — which her blog does.

This is convenient for posting one link to share documents from UASI leadership rather than forwarding a slew of e-mails. Similarly if Johnson wants to share a YouTube video, she’ll put a link in the blog, rather than push the size parameters of e-mail.

Johnson uses tumblr.com, a free microblogging service, to broadcast her message. She could have blogged through her own site saltlakeuasi.com, but the commercial host has better tools, including a newly added ability to upload an entry directly from her phone. “So much of what emergency managers do is to be very mobile in our jobs,” she said. “We have iPads, we have laptops, we have phones — we are constantly moving and we need tools that respond to that.”

Cue Canary Soundtrack

For emergency managers, the social networking tool Twitter has proven especially powerful.

Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M., about six miles northwest of Albuquerque, has 6,000 residents, and about 800 of them follow Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Phillips’ tweets. He sends out a steady stream of commentary on weather and fire, event updates and emergency management news. Followers weigh in with observations of their own on all these subjects.

Tweeting is fast: A message hits followers instantly. It’s two-way, with followers sharing, correcting or amending with comments of their own, giving managers immediate feedback on their communications. And it’s free.

As with most social media, Twitter requires no infrastructure investment. “It costs time; it doesn’t cost money,” Phillips said. “We have ongoing discussions about the return on that time investment, but to me it’s a no-brainer.”

Phillips said he has been making fewer phone calls and sending fewer e-mails as his Twitter entourage has grown. More than this, the constant interaction has helped him to hone his communications. By engaging in a constant dialog, “my messaging has become far stronger than it has ever been,” he said.

Two-Way Street

Twitter’s promise of two-way talk is one that pervades social networks, and it’s a major draw for emergency managers looking not just to disseminate their message, but also to hear what the public has to say. In particular, social networks can be a boon to situational awareness.

“Every citizen is a sensor. Now that everybody has these cell phones on their hip, they have the opportunity to give information,” Stephens said. “Maybe you don’t know that a street has not been plowed, or you don’t know that a place does not have water. Here’s a way to find that out.”

Phillips relies on a citizen corps of followers to help him take advantage of this capability. “It’s part of my concept of operations now. I have trusted agents all over the state who I can ask to work with me directly when I am working on emergency response issues,” he said. “They can have my back, watch for issues and trends, hit me up on the social media platforms to pass along road conditions, how much snow has fallen, what the wind speeds are.”

Others are using social media’s conversational aspect to gather feedback on current incidents and departmental initiatives.

“I have sent out an information request on Twitter — say we are looking for feedback on WebEOC [incident management software] — and within an hour I have gotten multiple responses from all over the country,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that I would have been able to reach the same number or types of people who I was able to reach without my social network.”

Although this information is a boon, it presents new challenges that have not yet been fully addressed: What to do with all this data? How to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Stephens points to one early effort, the software platform SwiftRiver from the open source project Ushahidi.

The software gathers real-time data from channels like Twitter, SMS, e-mail and RSS feeds, filters it through various algorithms and produces a visual representation of the data with keywords for filtering.

The outcomes help users get a quick snapshot of conversations surrounding a given topic, but it requires volunteer labor to organize the search. “It still takes a lot of human effort,” Stephens said.

Rules of the Road

While many parent governments have been open to social media, some trepidation remains. When conversations are open and spontaneous between the public and officials, there arises the possibility of mixed messages, bad or incomplete information and similar hazards — or so the thinking goes.

“Two and a half years ago, the attitude was, ‘You can do this, just don’t get us into any hot water,’” Crowe said. “What if I say something bad or misleading? Or if you have a follower with some antigovernment rant on his website, is that a reflection on the county or our policies? We had to find a balance in all of these things.”

Johnson County’s response has been to formulate a specific policy for social media use. Highlights of the policy include:

  • Departments/agencies must specify at least two individual employees who have authority to speak for the department/agency via social media sites.


  • Departments/agencies must control the use of user names and passwords associated with social media sites, ensuring that ownership is Johnson County and not restricted to any one person.


  • Departments/agencies must immediately change user names and/or passwords if an employee previously authorized to speak for the department/agency via social media sites leaves employment or is otherwise no longer authorized to speak for the department/agency.


  • Employees are expected to protect the county’s confidential and proprietary information, and are prohibited from sharing topics that are confidential or proprietary.


  • Employees must respect copyrights, trademarks and service marks. … Proper credit for others’ work must be clearly indicated on the site.
  • The use of ethnic slurs, personal insults, defamatory language, obscenity … is strictly prohibited.

Even as emergency management offices are working out the details of their social media programs, the related disciplines of fire and police are ramping up their use of these tools.

In September 2010, the International Association of Chiefs of Police surveyed 728 law enforcement agencies from 48 states and the District of Columbia, and found widespread adoption:

  • 81 percent of agencies surveyed use social media.
  • 67 percent of agencies surveyed have a Facebook page.
  • 35 percent of agencies surveyed have a social media policy and an additional 23.2 percent are in the process of crafting one.

Of the agencies not currently using social media, 62 percent are considering its adoption.

Social media platforms in themselves are not overly complicated. The fact that millions of everyday users have found their way onto Twitter and Facebook suggests there is little if any technical complexity involved.

Nor are they expensive. Without the need to install new infrastructure, the biggest investment comes in the form of time: Setting up accounts, broadcasting updates and monitoring conversations.

The greatest challenge, however, may well be in the realm of mental adjustment.

“In the old days, my mindset was to hold tight to information, to not really disclose a lot of information,” Phillips said. “So the big transformation for me has been to realize that information already is being exchanged, and that I am just a piece of that puzzle.”

Rather than being the sole source of the news flow, “I am just in the stream of information now.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.