Posts from — October 2010

Social Media’s Role in Disaster Communications: Panacea or Pandora’s Box (Part 2)

Communicating With Disaster Victims Using Social Media

Last week we addressed social media and its role during a disaster – what can be expected, types of communications devices that may work, and how they function. We also discussed that it could take as long as 48 hours or more for electricity, telecommunications and Internet service to be restored depending on the severity of the disaster. So when those services are finally restored in the aftermath of a calamity, how can social media assist in helping those affected reach out? This week we are looking at social media’s role in a post disaster context.

Generally speaking, disasters (regardless of severity) tend to make the affected population highly social. It is true that this group also includes a narrow band of the population that engages in anti-social activities where criminals have banded together. Fortunately, following events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, during the wildfires around Boulder, Colorado, those affected tended to group together extending courtesy, expressing friendliness and kindness to each other. When any significant event occurs, good or bad, people naturally want to talk about it. This is one of the reasons the social media sites on the Internet are so popular with the masses.

Since there are so many social media sites these days (the number of sites now approaches 200), which one should you choose for emergency communications? There does not seem to be any one particular social media site that stands out more than the others which would fit as the perfect emergency communications tool. Instead a user should look at their communications plan to see what sites would help them most. Which site or sites do the major contacts in your communications plan use? It may make the most sense to add several social sites to your plan. We suggest you contact the local government and public safety agencies in your area to determine if they are using social media to augment their traditional forms of communication. You would also be well advised to learn how those agencies will communicate with the community in the event of a calamity or disaster.

Combining social media sites doesn’t always make sense for day-to-day use. The short posts on Twitter (including hash-tags)can be confusing on Facebook or LinkedIn and don’t always make sense to the casual user. However, combining social sites for crisis communications makes a great deal of sense when you consider how many people with whom you can instantly connect. Many of these sites allow your posts to be automatically posted on other social media sites where you may be registered. For example, you setup a Twitter account and modify permissions for that account to post on Facebook (this is an automatic process, no programming required!). Since Twitter allows users to post via text message both followers on Twitter and Facebook can receive your communications. Couple that with Twitter allowing you to follow a user (via SMS text messages) without even having a Twitter account and your coverage for communication increases substantially.

Planning ahead and then exercising your plan will help insure that when an emergency actually takes place that your communications are sent, received and, in the most dire of circumstances, “hopefully” acted upon.

Social Media Communications for First Responders

First responders are trained professionals dispatched to assist those in need. Today there is a new emerging trend that draws first responders from people who are directly affected in the disaster area. Typically, trained disaster response personnel are not deployed or able to arrive on scene until several hours or even days after the event has taken place. When those directly affected can communicate with those responding, then professional first responders can be better prepared to render assistance upon arrival. Taping into the need for people to communicate during an event can help both individuals on scene and those managing the crisis operations centers.

In some communities local law enforcement has integrated SMS text instant messages that are sent to residents warning of Amber Alerts, accidents, severe weather and more critical emergencies. Users can automatically receive updates on their mobile devices and even online. Since more that 80% of adults own a cellphone in the USA, this type of communication has been shown to help speed up messaging and awareness of events no matter where recipients are within an area of cellular coverage. Once received, users can reliably post this type of message to their social media channels, thereby furthering the distribution of the message. Please resist the urge to repeat rumors, or unconfirmed information as it could make an already bad situation worse!

Government entities like FEMA have also tapped into the power of these social sites during a crisis, posting accurate information for those in the affected area to read. These efforts can assist the affected population with updates and instructions as well as provide critical information to those concerned about the safety of friends, family and co-workers in the affected areas. There are other NGO (non-government organization) online communities that have been established to help promote discussion about preparedness and encourage dialogue among first responders. These are all great steps forward in using the newest tools available to establish and maintain resilient communities.

Social Media Communications for Companies

When crafting your emergency communications, plan be sure to take yourself, your family or company’s specific needs into consideration. As with all plans—individuals, companies or agencies using social media channels should regularly review their procedures to ensure they are reaching out with effective two-way communications (when possible). Periodically check your plan and rehearse your chosen methods to ensure they work for your intended purposes. Use a combination of different social sites to guarantee your message is received. Meet on a regular basis with key personnel in your company to promote education as to the specific details of your emergency communications plan.

The aftermath of a disaster is challenging enough even with a well-designed disaster plan in place. However, making smart post-disaster decisions, preparing with a variety of communications tools and identifying ways others can receive them, allows you to do more than simply react to a bad situation. Take positive action! Use social media for more than sharing the latest buzz… use it to save a life.


October 25, 2010   1 Comment

Social Media’s Role In Disaster Communications: Panacea or Pandora’s Box?

What is Social Media? For those of you who may have heard of social media, but haven’t paid much attention, here is a brief description of what social media is: a blending of technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value. That is, users connected through an Internet web-based application sharing thoughts, ideas, photos or video in a two-way conversation with friends, peers and even total strangers. In some circles social media is being heralded as perhaps the single most powerful communication tool since the invention of the radio. While perhaps a truism, remember due to the industrial revolution and commercial commoditization of technology nearly “everyone” could afford to own a radio back in the day, and receiving broadcasts was free!

Social media has taken the Internet by storm. The number of people using popular networking sites like Facebook®, YouTube® and Twitter® and other emerging sites has grown so quickly, social media is becoming a widely accepted medium for not only communication but for news. People “tend” to trust their friends and peers to pass along relevant and reliable information through text, links and photos. For ICE PACK, using social media channels has been an effective way for us to reach out globally to thousands of people, organizations and agencies with relevant information and resources on emergency preparedness and disaster response.

These web-based communication tools allow users to post messages anytime, anyplace, in almost real time. Nearly anyone can immediately report on known or unknown events that are happening in their area and reach hundreds or thousands of people in an instant. As you might expect one also must be concerned about the accuracy and truthfulness of event information being posted and intelligently separate facts, from rumor and fear mongering.

Using Social Media During an Emergency

The use of social media for emergency and disaster communications is currently a lively topic of discussion as those in the EMS, fire, and emergency management fields use popular tools like blogging, Facebook and Twitter to notify their followers (a follower being a person who signs up to receive information from a particular individual, group or organization). Many groups have even been created around using social media as a tool to innovate crisis response.

These tools allow users to share ideas, expertise and problem solving with a larger network of people faster than ever before. For the first time, the people affected by an event, emergency or disaster can communicate with those who are in charge of responding to it almost immediately. Several state, local and government agencies have already embraced these social media tools and use them on a regular basis to disseminate important information. Some do this well and others need improvement.

But just how reliable are these social media channels to send and receive information about calamities? Will the information get through when it counts? How reliable is the information being sent and by whom? If your agency uses these tools, is there a “one-size-fits-most” approach? And what about those affected members of the community (i.e. impoverished, low income, elderly, disabled or simply those that don’t enjoy the use of computers and Smartphone’s) without the ability to either send or receive “tweets”? How are they helped?

Posting on your favorite social website is usually not an issue—simply open your browser or Smartphone app and post what’s on your mind. About 99% of the time your post goes through with no problem. But when there is a calamity in your area and thousands or millions of users are posting from one geographical area, will your post get through? Will the limitation of the medium let you make sense of your message (e.g. micro blogs such as Twitter are limited to 140 characters)? Will you even have an Internet connection at all? What happens when terrestrial landline and cellular telephone lines are inoperable for days or weeks?

Red Cross Social Media Resources that when a large-scale disaster occurs, like the earthquake in Chile this past February, that normal methods of telecommunication are not available for at least the first 48 hours. Not only is electricity and phone communication disrupted but Internet as well. This means that only satellite communications (SATCOM) devices are able to “reach out” using voice and data with any kind of reliability to coordinate disaster response assets in and outside the affected areas. Generally speaking there are several types of SATCOM that can be referenced in a past ICE PACK blog posting on Crisis Communications. The communications from these devices do not rely on land-based towers, fiber optic or copper transmission lines but work directly with low and high earth orbiting communications satellites as long as the device can “see” the open sky (i.e. they do not work well indoors).

New low cost lightweight personal satellite communication devices from SPOT and DeLorme can be configured to send one-way communications to SMS (Short Message Service) enabled cellular telephones, Internet email addresses as well as post messages on social media sites that are hosted out of the affected area. Of particular note is the DeLorme PN60W handheld GPS/satellite communications device that provides you with not only customizable preloaded messages that are GPS tagged with your location, but a 40 character free-text capability as well. This technology can be a game changer, and has tremendous potential in the disaster response and Search and Rescue communities! Look for a Field Test Report on this device on the ICE PACK website in the coming weeks. We’ve been working on testing this device from inside vehicles deep in the National Forests of WVA., driving through deep urban canyons of the National Capitol Region, all the way out to the high desert mountain trails around Moab, UT.

When Internet and telecommunications service are restored, social media users will be able to again post information relative to the emergency or disaster event. Key words are quickly implemented to tag posts, called hash-tags, about the event to allow users to quickly filter only the posts pertaining to the specific event. Still, posts must be evaluated to make sure the data is accurate and that there are no false posts. Keep in mind the terrible unfounded rumors that flooded the international media outlets from the New Orleans Superdome during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Note that during a similar event social media could easily fall prey to rumoring with even greater speed if the user community is not vigilant.

Emergency communications being distributed via social media is here to stay and, as these channels are further developed and new ones are created, soon “social media” will start becoming just “media”.

Special thanks to our social media peers @NorthlandFox and @Caroldn for your help in researching this article!

Stay tuned for part II, Using Social Media for Communications Post Disaster


October 18, 2010   3 Comments

Temporary Home and Building Repairs After Extreme Weather Emergencies and Disasters

Certainly after, and perhaps even during a natural, man-made or terrorism related emergency or disaster you may be faced with making temporary repairs to your home, office or place of business. If you built a safe room, you can now be fairly confident in your investment as it may well save your life. Making immediate temporary structural repairs may be necessary during a disaster event, which assures your continued safety and protection, and temporary repairs can also help prevent further property damage or looting. Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, explosions, high winds, severe storms, and minor fires can all damage structures that in many situations can be recoverable, except in catastrophic circumstances. Keep in mind that an “informed” decision must be made to do this based on planning, resources, pre-positioned supplies, know-how and a resilient mindset.

The most important first step immediately after the disaster event and perhaps even during it, is to assess your situation. What is the level of safety and security at your immediate location, and your ability or necessity to evacuate (if you have not done so already) if advisable or even possible? This is a critical calculated decision that must be made calmly, without the influence of adrenaline, BS or false bravado (read testosterone)!

Once this is accomplished you’ll need to assess the condition of the structure and any immediate hazards to life and limb. Generally this would include, but not be limited to the potential of: explosive natural/LP gas leaks, damaged exposed or downed electrical wires or power lines that can cause electrocution, severe structural damage to roofs, walls or foundations that can cause structural collapse, tree deadfalls, high or swift floodwater drowning, and/or physically dangerous animals, creatures, critters or criminals.

Homeowners should have a list of area contractors that can provide structural repairs immediately after a disaster. It’s also recommended that businesses and local governments have contracts in place with contractors and vendors to respond immediately to debris removal and infrastructure reconstruction. Here is an excellent set of post disaster guidelines from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Continue reading to find out the 7 must-haves to prepare for sheltering-in-place! More…

October 11, 2010   3 Comments