Training & Education

Boston’s Experience with Social Media Is Key During Emergencies

During emergency response to the marathon bombings and other crises, the city’s background using social media proved to be invaluable.

Boston social media

During the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent search for the perpetrators, Boston Police Department tweets in effect became the official source of information for everyone, including the media, especially after numerous reports by the press turned out to be false. By the time suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was holed up in a boat, the media had turned to Boston police tweets as an official source of information. 

The police department’s work with Twitter didn’t happen just as a consequence of the event, but was a continuation of a community policing policy, so Twitter was a familiar avenue for the department. Response via social media to the bombings, the February 2013 blizzard and other events were products of an already-engaged following and further cemented the city’s proclivity toward social media.

In May 2012, the city established its social media office within the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) and a team that extends to 100 social media liaisons across 51 departments. A “lengthy” internal policy for Boston social media liaison conduct was developed (along with an external one) to change the way people exchange information in the city.


The Bombings


When the bombs went off on Boylston Street near the finish line of the marathon, traditional means of communication were quickly overwhelmed and to communicate with citizens, the police department immediately went to Twitter. “Folks thought that we had jammed signals with concerns about bombs, but that’s not what happened,” said Cheryl Fiandaca, bureau chief of public information for the Boston Police Department. “It was a volume of calls. You would get a call, but it would drop off. There was just too much for the towers to handle.”

Police immediately began requesting via Twitter that people evacuate the finish line area, that there were injured people who needed assistance and that if there were video and photos taken in the area to please send them in. When the bombs went off, the police Twitter account had 55,000 followers. Three hours later, that number had grown to 100,000. At the end of the ordeal, the total was close to 300,000.

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“We took a leadership role in letting people know what was happening, which helped reduce the fear because people just didn’t know,” Fiandaca said. “They didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack or a chemical explosion; no one knew.”

Obviously there were volumes of information on social media, some of it accurate and some of it not even close to accurate. “That was a challenge,” Fiandaca said. “It was one of those situations where it’s impossible to figure out how you can handle a situation like it until it happens.”

Boston worked with the FBI to manage all the information, photos and videos being sent in and to correct inaccuracies. “We corrected misinformation; we asked people to look at pictures and let us know if they’d seen these folks,” Fiandaca said. “We tried to be as careful as we could with the information we were putting out and vet everything so we didn’t make mistakes.”

During the manhunt, they also asked citizens to not give away the locations where law enforcement was searching and asked people to shelter in place. It was received with vast cooperation as residents began to rely on the police department’s tweets for official information.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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