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Virtual Operations Support Teams Harness Social Media

Teams of emergency managers and disaster volunteers lend virtual support to those on the site of a disaster.

When the Shadow Lake wildfire broke out in Oregon in September 2011, the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) wanted to test social media as an information-sharing tool during the response.

Soon, Twitter, Facebook and Gmail accounts were set up, along with the ORfireInfo blog, and a shared Dropbox file and Keepstream social media account for saving relevant media articles. NIMO staff members were able to respond to public questions and comments, stay informed of what the media was reporting, and be aware of any Twitter or Facebook posts regarding the fire.

But it wasn’t NIMO that created this; it was the Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST), led by Jeff Phillips, emergency management coordinator for Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M., a village in Bernalillo County.

VOST is a team of professional emergency managers and disaster volunteers around the country that lends virtual support to those on the site of a disaster, who may be overwhelmed by the volume of incoming data.

The team, under the leadership of an assigned leader, is activated to perform specific functions in times of a disaster or any incident during which an emergency management team needs extra support. The team leader reports directly to the affected jurisdiction.

Phillips developed the concept in 2011 as a way of promoting the use of social media during disasters by making it easier for emergency managers to handle the massive amount of information being generated, while also meeting the expectations of constituents demanding information.

“It was a very simple concept that for me was natural as an emergency manager of a small jurisdiction that built up a social media expectation among my followers,” Phillips said.

An increasing number of emergency managers are using social media to share updates and information, but few have the staff, resources or time to keep up with the constant — and oftentimes overwhelming — flow of information, especially during a disaster.

Even small, localized incidents can stretch the resources of a small emergency management team, leaving the public with unanswered questions or incorrect information from unofficial sources.

The Shadow Lake wildfire Virtual Operations Support Team worked with NIMO staff for 19 days to keep its social media up-to-date.

Phillips has about 17 people in his VOST pool, some local, others across the country, so on most occasions five to six people will be available if an incident occurs, he said.

When a team leader is notified that an incident has occurred, VOST builds Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts with the incident name, so the disaster gets a profile. Then people start following the profile or hashtag and begin asking questions, instead of interacting with the incident management team.

Currently there’s no national VOST pool, although that’s something Phillips is thinking about for the future. For now, he encourages each jurisdiction to create its own VOST. “Every emergency management entity should build their own VOST with their own trusted folks and their own protocols,” he said.

As a colleague, Phillips has mentored various emergency managers to figure out if a VOST is a good fit for their jurisdiction, and also how to begin to foster relationships with potential team members and establish protocols before a disaster occurs. Although VOSTs can originate within the emergency management agency by training employees willing to volunteer their time, other communities have turned to CERT members and social-media-savvy community members.

“It’s a pool of people who you’ve trained and know what you are expecting of them,” Phillips said. “It’s a team of people dedicated to answer if I call.”

A VOST Leader Coalition hosts monthly calls and Skype sessions, keeps a running email list, and shares information on recent activation plans or new protocols with all team members.

As additional VOSTs are established, a VOS Group can be created to coordinate the work of each team in a particular area.

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.