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Social Media Was an Underused Tool During the Gatlinburg, Tenn., Firestorm

Neither the city nor its public safety agencies had social media accounts when the Nov. 28 inferno struck the city.

(TNS) — State and local public safety officials practically ignored social media as a tool to inform people of an approaching firestorm that swept into Gatlinburg.

A review of Facebook and Twitter postings shows officials in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and those with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency made little use of the free social media tools.

A spokeswoman for Gatlinburg said neither the city nor its public safety agencies had any social media accounts when the Nov. 28 inferno responsible for 14 deaths, more than 180 injuries and the damage or destruction of more than 2,400 structures struck the city. Officials said damage from the fire will exceed $500 million.

Since the disaster, spokeswoman Marci Claude said, the Gatlinburg Police Department "has created a Facebook page to share information with the community."

In contrast, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park continuously updated information on its Facebook page and Twitter account throughout the day warning of the growing danger. National Park officials warned of the unpredictable fire, the increasing winds moving flames toward Gatlinburg and ongoing evacuations within the park.

The park started sharing information at 10:46 a.m. on Nov. 28 about the fires marching north toward Gatlinburg.

Park officials posted on its Facebook page a video of a 2 p.m. news conference in which National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said outlying communities had been alerted to the danger wildfire could burn structures near the park's boundaries.

Soehn said the National Park Service has a policy encouraging parks to use social media. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park launched its Facebook account in 2013, its Twitter feeds in 2014 and began using Instagram in 2015, she said. The park has two Twitter accounts, one for park information and one for road closures and delays.

Soehn said the National Park has 644,379 Facebook followers, 96,200 people accessing the Instagram account, 23,103 followers on the park information Twitter feed and 33,173 people watching the road information Twitter account.

"We have found the diversity of social media platforms allow us the opportunity to directly communicate and disseminate information in a timely manner to people across age groups," Soehn said.

During the Chimney Tops 2 fire, which began Nov. 23 but didn't escape a 410-acre containment area until Nov. 28, firefighters from Colorado sent to douse the rampant flames created a Chimney Tops 2 Facebook page. Soehn said the new account had 44,418 followers "and an overall reach of over 2 million people with all the sharing of posts."

Soehn said park employees try to maintain interaction with followers on social media by responding to comments and questions.

She emphasized, however, the National Park's social media platforms are not designed to serve as a warning system for visitors because of spotty cellular coverage. The park's websites provide that kind of emergency information, Soehn said.

Micki Trost, public information officer for the Colorado division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, relies heavily on social media to share pertinent information with the public, especially during emergencies. Her agency's Twitter account has 44,000 followers.

Trost used social media in March to have conversations with drivers trapped on highways during a blizzard. She was able to assure stranded families help was on the way.

"Our accounts are very much interactive," she said. "Social media allows us to provide direct and immediate information to people impacted by an event.

“When I was hired five years ago, we had the accounts, but they had limited use. But as a practitioner in public safety, you must be on social media."

Trost said she has undergone "extensive training for social media and crisis communication" from the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education in Oak Ridge; the Public Affairs Science and Technology Fusion Center operated by Argonne National Laboratory, based in Argonne, Ill., and Federal Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md.

Now Trost conducts hands-on social media training courses for local, state and federal agencies across Colorado.

Trost said when she started using Facebook and Twitter to connect with the public, “the biggest complaint I heard was that only teenagers and college students used social media.”

Studies, however, show the fastest-growing segment of social media users are 60 and older.

A review of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency's Twitter account, which has 570 followers, shows a single post for Nov. 28 noting the "enhanced fire danger."

Perrin Anderson, spokesman for Sevier County, said that single post was retweeted from the National Weather Service by Sevier County EMA Director John Mathews.

The Sevier County EMA Twitter account was established in February 2015, Anderson said. There is no policy about using social media during emergencies. Anderson said there have been no discussions about using social media to communicate with the public since the wildfire disaster.

Anderson did not address why the county EMA Twitter account is not linked on the Sevier County website where information about Mathews' agency is provided.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, which has 12,200 followers on Twitter, didn't address the Gatlinburg disaster on Nov. 28. Its only post was at 11:04 p.m. asking people in Sevier County to stay off mobile devices.

Dean Flener, who has a Twitter account noting he is the official spokesman for TEMA, made no mention of the firestorm on Nov. 28. He said the accounts were established in 2010 by the previous public information staff.

"TEMA uses both Facebook and Twitter extensively for social media engagement," Flener said when asked about the dearth of information about the wildfire.

"TEMA has always used its social media sites to provide public information," Flener said. "We have not used social media as a public warning platform, either statewide or locally."

Asked about a state policy about using social media to alert the public of dangerous events, Flener provided an internet link to Tennessee's restrictions on employees engaging in political activities with social media.

TEMA at 11 p.m. EST, put the first mention of the raging fires on its state website. The information was extensive and included details about evacuations, 30 structures burning in Gatlinburg, downed power lines and school closures.

Social media was used to counter erroneous information released Nov. 29 by TEMA that Ober Gatlinburg had been consumed by flames. TEMA put the inaccurate report on its state website, but corrected it after sunrise when it was debunked, Flener said. That bad information was retweeted on a Twitter account identified as Gatlinburg's.

"This information was incorrectly reported into the State Emergency Operations Center from a number of eyewitness accounts in Gatlinburg," Flener said. "I do not recall exactly who all these sources may have been."

Ober Gatlinburg on Nov. 29 used its Facebook page and Twitter account to inform people it was not destroyed. An employee even provided a video of the popular tourist attraction on social media to prove it remained intact.

A Twitter account called GatlinburgTn, with 23,500 followers, noted at 11:43 a.m. Nov. 28 that 500 acres were burning in the National Park, but, “Gatlinburg is safe for now.” Its next post was at 5:14 p.m. to share the voluntary evacuation of Mynatt Park. The account did not note the evacuation was mandatory at 6 p.m.

For the next three hours, the Gatlinburg Twitter account was silent as the firestorm erupted about 6 pm., fanned by winds gusting at 87 mph. At 8:17 p.m. the first of three tweets were issued about evacuations and the "disastrous situation."

None of those tweets, however, were issued by the city of Gatlinburg, Claude said.

"That is not a City, Chamber (of Commerce) or CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) hosted Twitter site," Claude said.

"We are unaware of who administers that site. We appreciate their attempt, along with mainstream media, to use social media to deliver the message."

Pigeon Forge's Facebook page was silent on Nov. 28. The City of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism used its Facebook page throughout the day to share several of the National Park postings. The first Facebook posting created by the tourism department at 8:39 p.m. provided information about the evacuated area and available shelters.

Trost said despite the value of social media to connect with the public, she still encounters public safety providers not using those resources.

"I use it all day, every day to share information with everyone living or playing in Colorado," Trost said. “We use Google maps a lot to help people know where the hazard is, which way to get away from it and where to go for help."

While Trost said social media can provide immediate information, public safety agencies still need the mainstream media to share information with the public. Social media users can obtain quick details on noteworthy events, but "then gravitate to traditional news sources for continued coverage," she said.

A drawback of social media is false information can be shared multiple times.

"One of the biggest jobs is rumor management," she said. "If it's a life and death situation, we put a stop to it right away.

"We'll contact the people sending out the inaccurate information. Usually, it's a matter of people hitting the resend button without really looking at it.

"I would suggest people find the social media accounts for the public safety agencies where they live and travel to," to be informed of any dangerous or eventful occurrences, Trost said.

©2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.). Visit the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.