Albert Einstein once said: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Who can argue with that, especially when it comes to technology? Imagining how technology can fill a void is necessary when it comes to conceiving a new device or system. Perhaps nowhere is there an example of the importance of emerging technology as there is in emergency management. Thousands of people can be impacted by a man-made or natural disaster within seconds, and the availability of tools that can help not only before but also during the response to the devastation can save lives and time.
Emergency Management sought out emerging technologies that will positively impact the field and possibly change how people think tech fits into preparedness, response and recovery.
Within the last couple of years, social media has become go-to communication tools that the public uses to obtain information. But one of the issues for emergency managers is how an agency can test how it would use social media in an emergency. Tweeting and issuing updates on Facebook — even when preceded and followed by the words “test” or “drill” — would likely confuse people and possibly start rumors, which can be impossible to stop once the incorrect information starts to spread. But emergency management consulting firm Nusura Inc. is seeking to provide a way for agencies to test their social media and public outreach practices through the use of its training tool SimulationDeck.
The secure Web portal replicates online communication tools, including popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as agency websites and blogs. Nusura President Jim Chesnutt is using his experiences from being a public information officer — including with FEMA as a deputy public affairs officer for Region VIII — to help people train on disseminating timely, accurate and coordinated public information during emergencies.
Photo courtesy of Nusura
After participating in numerous exercises, Chesnutt observed a pattern: “In the after-action reports for almost every major exercise I worked on, they said that the public information function was not being tested in a realistic way. And it’s true.” The pressure created by mock media and those tasked with testing the public information element didn’t compare to the reality of handling even a small emergency, he added.
Nusura — which is composed of former public information officers from all levels of government — created SimulationDeck to mimic what happens online and in the media during an emergency. The Web portal has nine websites: SimulationBook includes Facebook’s core features; Bleater simulates Twitter; blogging platform Frogger; YouTube lookalike EweTube; agency news; incident information; Exercise Times Daily, a Web-based newspaper that features live reader comments; SimDeck News, a Web-based TV station; and KEXN Radio.
SimulationDeck doesn’t require special software, so it can work on any platform or Internet-connected device. Chesnutt said one person working in the simulation cell during an exercise could act as 10 people. For example, he or she could file a newspaper article, then post on the agency’s website and then act at the governor’s press secretary and announce a surprise press conference. “Things happen instantly, and any simulation player can generate an enormous number of injects, as fast as they can type and hit enter,” he said.
Although the tool hasn’t been on the market for very long, it was used during Vibrant Response 13, a U.S. Army North national-level field training exercise that had about 9,000 service members and civilians from the military, as well as federal and state agencies. Don Manuszewski, chief of public affairs for U.S. Army North, said it’s important to practice all forms of communication and that includes social media as it becomes increasingly popular. “Social media is becoming kind of a way that a large section of the population gets and sends out information, so if we’re not training to understand how it affects us and where it’s going, then we’re doing a disservice to those we’re trying to help,” he said. “We need to make sure we understand the entire information environment from the traditional media to the media that people are using now like social media.”
U.S. Army North incorporated social media into previous exercises to varying levels of success. For example, U.S. Army North used milBook, a professional networking site similar to Facebook that was developed by the U.S. Defense Department, during training but it didn’t quite work because the organization was trying to adapt it to meet its needs, instead of vice versa.
Using SimulationDeck during Vibrant Response 13 felt more real than previous attempts at incorporating social media during an exercise, Manuszewski said. “It met our needs much better than anything that we have used in the past.” After the exercise, they worked with Nusura on some features that could improve it. For example, Manuszewski said people on the microblogging site couldn’t track a trending topic. The workaround was to create a page and name it with the topic that staff wanted to track in place of being able to utilize a search feature.
Nusura’s Chesnutt said updates have been made based on user feedback and SimulationDeck also evolves to reflect real-world changes. “It is organic and ever changing just like the Internet,” he said.