When the skies dumped 20.2 inches of snow on Chicago in February 2011 — the third-largest storm in the city’s history — emergency managers rushed to their computers.
Using a combination of Facebook and a homegrown texting system called “Notify Chicago,” managers pumped out a steady stream of information on school closures, city services, weather updates, car towing and, eventually, cleanup efforts.
“This gave us the ability to communicate quickly and effectively,” said Roderick Drew, director of media affairs for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. “It allowed us to tell people to exercise caution, to not travel unless they had to [and] to leave work early if they had to go to work. We needed to let them know that this was not a run-of-the-mill snowstorm.”
Drew’s office is not alone in its efforts to harness the power of social media in times of crisis. Across the nation, emergency managers are striving to tweet their way into the public eye and to put their best Facebook forward.
About 20 percent of the emergency management community is involved in some form of social media, according to Kim Stephens, a senior associate at Abt Associates and creator of the blog iDisaster 2.0.
Some 550 emergency management offices have a presence on Facebook, including many state offices.
“It all boils down to having an avenue for communications,” Stephens said. “If you look at the way people are communicating with each other, they don’t watch the news, especially the younger generation,” Stephens said. “They are looking for content when and where they want it. If you are not in that space, you are missing an opportunity.”
What is the opportunity, exactly?
For Adam Crowe, social media offers the opportunity to put a human face on the emergency management community, while simultaneously showing what the work is worth. “We wanted to give people some sense of what they are getting from the city, where their tax dollars are going,” said Crowe, assistant director of community preparedness in Johnson County, Kan., population 560,000.
Crowe is bringing emergency management home to citizens with YouTube, via a channel he uses to push out messages on a wide range of public issues.
His office usually interviews a duty officer during severe weather and puts the video online.
When the local media conducts an emergency management interview, Crowe’s team is right alongside recording the interview, using a home video camera and $60 editing software. They then broadcast it on YouTube. Crowe has even used YouTube to run light-hearted public service ads through its Preparedness Piggy campaign. (For holiday cheer, the pig presents the 12 Days of Preparedness at www.youtube
“YouTube is a prime way for us to put a face on emergency management,” he said.
There’s some care and feeding here: Crowe needs a team to shoot the YouTube installments, edit the video and upload the content. For some, social media is a way to get an even quicker hit, something thin and simple to steer people toward further details.
As executive director at the Salt Lake Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), Alicia D. Johnson works with 17 municipalities. To communicate with these municipalities online, she needs a single, consolidated means to push out a lot of information easily — which her blog does.
This is convenient for posting one link to share documents from UASI leadership rather than forwarding a slew of e-mails. Similarly if Johnson wants to share a YouTube video, she’ll put a link in the blog, rather than push the size parameters of e-mail.
Johnson uses tumblr.com, a free microblogging service, to broadcast her message. She could have blogged through her own site saltlakeuasi.com, but the commercial host has better tools, including a newly added ability to upload an entry directly from her phone. “So much of what emergency managers do is to be very mobile in our jobs,” she said. “We have iPads, we have laptops, we have phones — we are constantly moving and we need tools that respond to that.”
Cue Canary Soundtrack
For emergency managers, the social networking tool Twitter has proven especially powerful.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M., about six miles northwest of Albuquerque, has 6,000 residents, and about 800 of them follow Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Phillips’ tweets. He sends out a steady stream of commentary on weather and fire, event updates and emergency management news. Followers weigh in with observations of their own on all these subjects.
Tweeting is fast: A message hits followers instantly. It’s two-way, with followers sharing, correcting or amending with comments of their own, giving managers immediate feedback on their communications. And it’s free.
As with most social media, Twitter requires no infrastructure investment. “It costs time; it doesn’t cost money,” Phillips said. “We have ongoing discussions about the return on that time investment, but to me it’s a no-brainer.”
Phillips said he has been making fewer phone calls and sending fewer e-mails as his Twitter entourage has grown. More than this, the constant interaction has helped him to hone his communications. By engaging in a constant dialog, “my messaging has become far stronger than it has ever been,” he said.
Twitter’s promise of two-way talk is one that pervades social networks, and it’s a major draw for emergency managers looking not just to disseminate their message, but also to hear what the public has to say. In particular, social networks can be a boon to situational awareness.