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How Sandy Changed Social Media Strategies in New York City

The New York City Fire Department’s social media manager, Emily Rahimi, remembers Hurricane Sandy and addresses how social media use during emergencies has evolved.

Emily Rahimi, the New York City Fire Department’s social media manager, was chained to her desk from Oct. 29, 2012, until 6 p.m. the next day. Hurricane Sandy had created havoc and Rahimi was using the department’s Twitter account to calm citizens and dispense information. The Twitter account wasn’t initially intended for such use, but that all changed after those two days. “Once the emergency calls started coming in, I was surprised and it took a second to figure out how I was going to handle it,” Rahimi told Emergency Management after the storm. “I didn’t think about the fact that with cell service down, they’d still have access to Twitter.”

People were panicked, in shock and many found solace in the understanding and direct information from Rahimi’s tweets for which she was recognized nationally. We caught up with her again to see how things have changed in the social media department since Sandy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How have things changed as far as social media use since those two days during Sandy?
The hurricane really got people to understand a little bit more, at least around here, how social media can be very important in terms of communications. They had been hesitant about it because if you’re not familiar with social media, you might focus on what could go wrong with it or how it can be used improperly. But I think that really opened people’s eyes as to how we can use social media as a great tool to communicate with the public, let them know what’s going on within the department as well as how to prepare for emergencies. That’s been helpful because it’s enabled me to get a lot more cooperation and maybe open more doors in terms of finding ways to use social media to help more groups in the department. It’s growing and great to see.

How is it being used differently both within your department and overall?
Overall the past year has really been big in terms of social media for emergencies. There was Sandy, which was kind of small in comparison to the others. Boston was huge; the police department there used it in an innovative way to inform the public. The Red Cross in Kenya during the mall attack. Philip Ogola [who runs Kenya Red Cross’ social media command center] was doing incredible things, whether he was giving people first aid information via social media or finding missing people, he was so crucial to saving lives there. It was really showing that social media is a way to get people information in a very instant way that we didn’t have before.  
And then within the department, we have communication with a lot more people who are trying to communicate information from each of their units, right now using our social media platform, but maybe in the future we’ll find other ways to communicate. Our operation center is looking for ways to use video and photos posted on social media for situational awareness in the field for firefighters and EMS.

Is it becoming a two-way conversation or had it already been that?
I had always tried to make it a two-way communication tool because otherwise I think it just looks like you’re using it as a means for pushing out press releases. Now — especially within the last few months — it’s people asking questions about different events, different jobs, ways they can get information or help in a certain situation. It’s really become a way for people to have a conversation.

How has your job changed?
It’s become busier. I’ve always tried to keep it in a realm that I can manage. But when you’re getting more followers and more questions and people interested in what you’re saying, you’re always trying to think of new ways of saying things. You want to keep people interested and let them know that you’re interested and trying to give them the information they’re looking for. 

You said people had concerns about the negatives around social media. What are those concerns and how do you manage them?
They’re all pretty valid concerns about “What if we tweet something out that’s super-sensitive that we shouldn’t be tweeting?” There are lots of concerns, but mostly putting out information that we shouldn’t. The press office here teaches a class to all of our chiefs about how they should be talking to the media. Now I’m kind of a part of that talking about social media. I don’t want to tell people that it’s bad overall and bad things can happen. I want people to know that bad things can happen if you use it improperly, but if you use it correctly it’s a great way for us to get messages out that we might not be able to get out otherwise in terms of safety and security. People are starting to see that side of it.

Talk about standards and how you develop them.
We have a policy for all of our members. We also have a customer use policy from NYC Digital — that’s part of City Hall and kind of the overseer of city agency social media managers. Their policy helps us determine how we should or shouldn’t interact with people.

Can you talk about the policies that are more in depth and how you develop those?
They are really just to ensure that we don’t have to worry that our members don’t understand what they should be sending out. There are a lot of members who are proud of where they work and have individual Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for their units, and it’s basically a customer use policy for them so they all stay in compliance and are uniform. That was developed over a span of time with many lawyers.

What does the future look like for expanding social media use?
I’ve started doing a lot more projects that are photo and video related because I noticed people love that. I was just recently issued a device that will allow me to do Instagram, Vine and things like that so I can even put those out. And then internally just trying to figure out better means of communication in case Sandy happens again — ways that I’ll be able to communicate within the department a little easier and thinking ahead to some of the issues that might come up.

What are your long-term reflections from those two crazy days during Sandy?
It was such organized chaos that night that I don’t necessarily know that at the time I was thinking about what was going on. Looking back, I’m trying to stay on top of what other social media managers have experienced and tried to put together a plan. We never know what’s going to happen in an emergency; there’s always something that surprises us. But just to understand ways that I’ll be able to help people, whether it’s like Sandy or something that another agency has experienced — ways to pass information more easily and more quickly. 

This story was originally published by Emergency Management magazine