When social media aren’t commandeering lunch banter on Madison Avenue or helping celebrities expedite the journey to public embarrassment, this ever-growing cornucopia of conversation tools is doing something commendable: saving lives. Emergency managers are embracing social media and integrating social networking into plans, policies and procedures because they’ve witnessed its effectiveness in recent disaster response all over the world.
Social media lends a hand during Japan earthquake, other disasters
Former KVIE TV newsman and Sacramento County public information officer Kerry Shearer points to the devastating March 2011 earthquake in Japan as the latest example that proved Facebook, Twitter and friends are an indispensable resource for more than simple communication during emergencies.Just one hour after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami decimated a swath of northeast Japan, Google Person Finder was activated and records began pouring into its publicly searchable database. Four weeks after the quake, Google People Finder is tracking more than 600,000 records and connecting people with lost friends and relatives.
And the list of social media success stories in disasters is growing. Airlines used Twitter to bolster customer service during an historic volcanic eruption in Iceland in April 2010 and again during a December 2010 blizzard in the northeast United States (it was a holiday weekend, which exacerbated the call volume). Following a February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, volunteers used the Ushahidi open-source mapping platform to launch a recovery map that could update in real time by collecting email, Twitter and SMS reports from affected and unaffected people. On the local level, Maine’s emergency management agency has recognized that it can’t rely on traditional media alone to reach everyone in the population, and the Colorado Division of Emergency Management is urging people to ‘fast follow’ them on Twitter.
Social media can help clear roads (snow removal is emergency management!)
With the size and scope of emergency management’s responsibilities, social media’s role in response has massive growth potential.
Yes, clearing roads is emergency management; in fact, emergency managers are tasked with planning for and responding to all forms of crises. (See the PDF of Baltimore City’s snow emergency routes here.)
How public health can leverage social media
Public health officials see social media as more than a suggested means to predict pandemic flu outbreaks. Effective messaging via social media can empower people to take actions that properly treat an illness or decrease their susceptibility to illness. Kate Fowlie, a PIO with Contra Costa Health Services in California, sees social media as a way to make the public a resource multiplier for information dissemination.
The American Red Cross employed this tactic in Haiti in fall 2010 amidst a deadly cholera outbreak. With the help of Haiti’s cell phone companies, the Red Cross broadcast emergency text messages about the causes, symptoms and ways to prevent cholera. Each message reached more than 350,000 people in Port-au-Prince alone.
Social media is about listening, too
Jeff Raymond’s parting words about social media in emergencies: pay attention and listen up. He’s a media relations specialist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the public information representative for the university’s joint information center.