Before an emergency or disaster strikes is the optimum time for emergency managers to engage their community in public education, community preparedness activities, training, exercises and advocacy. Traditionally these components are handled in very resource-heavy ways, including educational booths, printed materials, public talks and similar processes. While these types of programs are somewhat effective, they often take a tremendous amount of staff time; they cost money to generate; and they’re not necessarily environmentally friendly.
Likewise, average citizens are moving away from synchronous activities that require them to engage in an activity at a specific time and location that they didn’t select. This is the impact and influence of technological progressions with tag words like “on-demand,” “mobile,” “social” and “crowd.” In addition, there are increasingly more sources of information (or white noise) that appeal to the average person and thus distract and conflict with traditional preparedness messages. Consequently, fewer people are engaged in community groups or attend small gatherings and can receive preparedness information the traditional way. They often reject — either directly or indirectly — printed preparedness materials that are poorly designed or incompatible with the limited time they have dedicated to engage.
Unfortunately these characteristics, along with shrinking budgets and staff in tough economic times, have led to less attention focused on emergency preparedness. Emergency managers who maintain small offices are often left with choices that no one wants to make, such as whether to focus limited resources on preparedness or response.
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Pre-identified hashtags: Hashtags are one of the primary ways to search and classify information on Twitter. A hash mark (#) preceding a word makes it search friendly. Unfortunately in most disasters, hashtags are completely organic and defined by the crowd. However, there’s a new strategy to pre-identify hashtags for use during different situations. For example, Houston adopted this strategy for impending severe weather. It identified hashtags like #powerout, #debris, #hail and #wind to help filter the city’s social media information.
Twitter town halls: Public gatherings (a.k.a. town hall meetings) have long been the standard to engage the general public on topics of interest. As the general public becomes more dependent on the availability and time-saving possibilities of technology, however, physical meetings have become less effective. As a result, the Twitter town hall meeting is a growing trend. President Barack Obama utilized this functionality in 2011, as did several emergency management offices looking to engage communities before disasters occur.
Streaming and recorded videos: The ability to record a video or stream activity to an online video outlet (on Ustream or YouTube, for example) has become nearly ubiquitous with inexpensive technologies and integration with cellphones. But emergency managers often are reluctant to use these technologies for anything more than a traditional public service announcement. These technologies can be used (before the disaster) to introduce local staff, highlight activities or introduce “behind the scenes” components of emergency management.
Crowdsourcing: Social media tools are built on the foundations of conversations in a virtual environment. Consequently emergency management offices can use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to engage their communities during exercises, trainings and drills to confirm that the activity was successful. For example, many emergency management offices ask for public feedback when they test outdoor warning sirens to confirm they work when and where they’re supposed to.
Gamification: Organizations like the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency in Washington state have instituted game functions into social activities to create fun and engaging environments to learn about emergency preparedness. The agency’s 30 Days, 30 Ways campaign has been run the last two years and routinely garners participants from throughout the community and U.S.
Travel ready: Some jurisdictions have begun to consider how to use quick response (QR) codes to help visitors and guests in their community be prepared if an event occurs during their stay. QR codes are two-dimensional bar codes that when scanned with a smartphone, direct the user to a designated website. Communities in Kansas and Virginia are considering placing QR codes that link to basic preparedness information on the back of hotel room doors.
These examples and suggestions are just the beginning. Social media is not just a response tool. It also has significant applications before, during and after events that may ultimately provide cost-effective, time-efficient solutions for preparing local communities for emergencies and disasters.
Adam Crowe is the director of emergency preparedness for Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He also is the author of Disasters 2.0: The Application of Social Media in Modern Emergency Management. Crowe writes the Disasters 2.0 blog for Emergency Management magazine.