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.