B Y A D A M S T O N E | C O N T R I B U T I N G W R I T E R

HARNESSING
EMERGENCY MANAGERS ARE INCREASINGLY TAPPING SOCIAL
MEDIA TO CONNECT WITH COMMUNITIES.
W
hen 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 eorts.
“is gave us the ability to communicate quickly and eectively,” said Roderick
Drew, director of media aairs for the Chicago O ce 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 o ce is not alone in its eorts 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 .
36
SOCIAL
MEDIA
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About 20 percent of the emergency man-
agement 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 o ces
have a presence on Facebook, including many
state o ces.
“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, espe-
cially the younger generation,” Stephens said.
“ey 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?
WHOTUBE? YOUTUBE
For Adam Crowe, social media oers the
opportunity to put a human face on the emer-
gency management community, while simul-
taneously 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 direc-
tor 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 o ce usually interviews a duty o cer
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 soware.
ey then broadcast it on YouTube. Crowe has
even used YouTube to run light-hearted pub-
lic service ads through its Preparedness Piggy
campaign. (For holiday cheer, the pig presents
the 12 Days of Preparedness at www.youtube
.com/watch?v=8vIn71DxlEA.)
“YouTube is a prime way for us to put a face
on emergency management,” he said.
ere’s some care and feeding here: Crowe
needs a team to shoot the YouTube install-
ments, 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 Ur-
ban Area Security Initiative (UASI), Alicia
D. Johnson works with 17 municipalities. To
communicate with these municipalities on-
line, she needs a single, consolidated means
to push out a lot of information easily —
which her blog does.
is 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 microblog-
ging service, to broadcast her message. She could
have blogged through her own site saltlakeuasi.
com, but the commercial host has better tools, in-
cluding a newly added ability to upload an entry
directly from her phone. “So much of what emer-
gency 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 network-
ing tool Twitter has proven especially powerful.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M., about six
miles northwest of Albuquerque, has 6,000 resi-
dents, and about 800 of them follow Emergency
Management Coordinator Je Phillips’ tweets.
He sends out a steady stream of commentary on
weather and re, 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 feed-
back 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.
TWOWAY STREET
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
“In the old days, my mindset was to hold tight to information, to not
really disclose a lot of information. So the big transformation for me has
been to realize that information already is being exchanged, and that I
am just a piece of that puzzle.”
— Je Phillips, emergency management coordinator, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M.
Chicago’s O ce of Emergency Management used Facebook and a homegrown texting systemto keep citizens
abreast of weather updates and city services during a recent snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Antony Mores
EM07_12.indd 38 7/13/11 10:49 AM
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disseminate their message, but also to hear what
the public has to say. In particular, social net-
works can be a boon to situational awareness.
“Every citizen is a sensor. Now that everybody
has these cell phones on their hip, they have the
opportunity to give information,” Stephens said.
“Maybe you don’t know that a street has not been
plowed, or you don’t know that a place does not
have water. Here’s a way to nd that out.”
Phillips relies on a citizen corps of followers
to help him take advantage of this capability.
“It’s part of my concept of operations now. I
have trusted agents all over the state who I can
ask to work with me directly when I am work-
ing on emergency response issues,” he said.
“ey can have my back, watch for issues and
trends, hit me up on the social media platforms
to pass along road conditions, how much snow
has fallen, what the wind speeds are.”
Others are using social media’s conversa-
tional aspect to gather feedback on current
incidents and departmental initiatives.
“I have sent out an information request on
Twitter — say we are looking for feedback on
WebEOC [incident management soware] —
and within an hour I have gotten multiple re-
sponses from all over the country,” Johnson said.
“I don’t know that I would have been able to
reach the same number or types of people who
I was able to reach without my social network.”
Although this information is a boon, it
presents new challenges that have not yet been
fully addressed: What to do with all this data?
How to separate the wheat from the cha?
Stephens points to one early eort, the so-
ware platform SwiRiver from the open
source project Ushahidi.
e soware gathers real-time data from
channels like Twitter, SMS, e-mail and RSS
feeds, lters it through various algorithms
and produces a visual representation of the
data with keywords for ltering.
e outcomes help users get a quick snap-
shot of conversations surrounding a given
topic, but it requires volunteer labor to organize
the search. “It still takes a lot of human eort,”
Stephens said.
RULES OF THE ROAD
While many parent governments have
been open to social media, some trepidation
remains. When conversations are open and
spontaneous between the public and o cials,
there arises the possibility of mixed messages,
bad or incomplete information and similar
hazards — or so the thinking goes.
“Two and a half years ago, the attitude was,
‘You can do this, just don’t get us into any hot
water,’” Crowe said. “What if I say something
bad or misleading? Or if you have a follower
with some antigovernment rant on his website,
is that a reection on the county or our policies?
We had to nd a balance in all of these things.”
Johnson County’s response has been to for-
mulate a specic policy for social media use.
Highlights of the policy include:
40
EM07_12.indd 40 7/13/11 10:50 AM
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• Departments/agencies must specify at least
two individual employees who have authority
to speak for the department/agency via social
media sites.
• Departments/agencies must control the use
of user names and passwords associated
with social media sites, ensuring that own-
ership is Johnson County and not restricted
to any one person.
• Departments/agencies must immediately
change user names and/or passwords if an
employee previously authorized to speak
for the department/agency via social media
sites leaves employment or is otherwise no
longer authorized to speak for the depart-
ment/agency.
• Employees are expected to protect the
county’s condential and proprietary in-
formation, and are prohibited from sharing
topics that are condential or proprietary.
• Employees must respect copyrights, trade-
marks and service marks. … Proper credit
for others’ work must be clearly indicated
on the site.
• e use of ethnic slurs, personal insults,
defamatory language, obscenity … is strictly
prohibited.
Even as emergency management o ces are
working out the details of their social media
programs, the related disciplines of re and
police are ramping up their use of these tools.
In September 2010, the International
Association of Chiefs of Police surveyed 728
law enforcement agencies from 48 states and
the District of Columbia, and found wide-
spread adoption:
• 81 percent of agencies surveyed use social
media.
• 67 percent of agencies surveyed have a Face-
book page.
• 35 percent of agencies surveyed have a social
media policy and an additional 23.2 percent
are in the process of craing one.
• Of the agencies not currently using social
media, 62 percent are considering its adoption.
Social media platforms in themselves are
not overly complicated. e fact that millions
of everyday users have found their way onto
Twitter and Facebook suggests there is little if
any technical complexity involved.
Nor are they expensive. Without the need to
install new infrastructure, the biggest invest-
ment comes in the form of time: Setting up
accounts, broadcasting updates and monitor-
ing conversations.
e greatest challenge, however, may well
be in the realm of mental adjustment.
“In the old days, my mindset was to hold
tight to information, to not really disclose a
lot of information,” Phillips said. “So the big
transformation for me has been to realize that
information already is being exchanged, and
that I am just a piece of that puzzle.”
Rather than being the sole source of the
news ow, “I am just in the stream of informa-
tion now.” k
Emergency Management
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