Social Media in Disasters: reports from the field


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Presented to the 2013 Whole Community Preparedness Conference in Lisle, Illinois

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  • Boston PD, that first day, found social media to be SUCH a powerful force, this is the radio call they made while the bomb squad searched the hundreds of bags left all around the finish line.
  • This tweet was sent mere minutes after the arrest of the second suspect in the Boston bombings. Approved on-site by tweeting Deputy Commissioner John Daley it demonstrates how quickly information moves these days.
  • FDNY’s standard protocol for emergency requests sent via social media is to redirect them to call 911. And that’s how her night started off. People wrote to @FDNY on Twitter asking for help with evacuation or whatever. She rebuffed them, as is required due to department policy. Now, I’m not saying this course of action is wrong; it’s the only way public safety agencies can handle what would most assuredly be a flood of requests. There’s no easy way to translate tweets into the 911 system, it wasn’t designed that way.But then one person tweeted her asking for help. She directed them to 911, and he replied that he couldn’t call because the power was out and cell networks were overloaded. He was in a flooding house and Twitter was his only means of communication, the only way he could ask for help. Emily found a supervisor and they figured out a protocol that formally redirected people to 911, but if they couldn’t do that, had her figuring out which borough dispatcher was the right one and placing an internal call to them to request help.We’ll never know if Emily’s quick thinking and flexibility saved lives, but frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Social media was an useful as any dispatch system.
  • Or this.
  • Poorly composed, terribly lit, completely without context or expertise.
  • How can emergency managers look at these images and not see that this is ground-truth. This is the intelligence every IC begs for in a disaster. With geo-location, we can see exactly what’s happening, exactly where it’s happening, and in many cases, exactly AS it’s happening. All we have to do is accept that the public can be our media and give us information.
  • One only has to see images like this.
  • Social media isn’t only useful for massive, huge, world-changing disasters, y’know. A couple of weeks ago, my hometown made the national news due to a botched demolition that fell into an active Salvation Army store. Six people ended up dying, with more than a dozen others getting transported to hospitals. The fire department, being the coordinators of PA Task Force 1, the local Urban Search and Rescue team, was incident commander. Police maintained the scene. Emergency management and Red Cross supported the responders and response. The Health Department was not, and should not, have been called in. Because things were so busy for those other agencies, the social media aspect of the response ended up not happening, despite massive media interest and posting on social media networks, especially Twitter. I got the call from our Commissioner’s Office to start retweeting the response agencies posts and sharing information updates as they were approved for release. Not as part of a JIC, but just as a way to broaden the scope of the City’s public information releases. The problem was that I was returning from a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina and was watching what was going on on CNN in the airport bar! So I pulled out my trusty iphone, connected to a power source and went to work. We retweeted every response agency’s tweet. We looked for elucidating information and diagrams. We gave updates on public transit changes. We communicated the boundaries of the response and asked folks to stay away to the responders could do their work. At one point, our account name was the second-highest trending term on Twitter in Philadelphia. We became the single, best source for official information release from a City agency. Not because we were specially placed in a JIC or because we were privy to inside information. It’s because I had a few hours to kill in an airport bar and a phone. That’s the power of social media today in emergencies.
  • This is Calgary, Edmonton. Under water. It didn’t make the US news too much this year, but they had flooding earlier this summer that swamped their downtown. The floods also swamped their communications channels. The city’s website was under such a stress from the public looking for information, it crashed. So they turned to Twitter to disseminate official information. And when the police department’s account got thrown into “twitter jail” they used a local constable’s account. Calgary continued to message and disseminate information throughout the disaster come hell or high water.
  • And the social media aspects of Sandy didn’t stop with the response. The recovery was studded with social media. In some cases, like that green/yellow/red picture there where the public was asked to crowd-source damage assessments to help FEMA focus on the areas where they were needed the most. And in other cases where the public took matters into their own hands via social media to help with recovery. Groups like Occupy Sandy provided troops to check on trapped folks until the Red Cross and National Guard could get there. Blogs like Sandy Sucks acted as clearinghouses for information on recovery needs and opportunities. And even non-affiliated folks did something, like getting the wifi up at a Starbucks, or hooking up a series of power strips so folks could re-charge their phones. All of this was almost always organized by social media.
  • Social Media in Disasters: reports from the field

    1. 1. Social Media in Disasters: reports from the field James Garrow (@jgarrow) Philadelphia Department of Public Health
    2. 2. Incidents, Emergencies, Disasters; Social Media
    3. 3. 2013 Boston Marathon
    4. 4. 2011 Virginia Earthquake
    5. 5. Asiana Airlines Flight 214
    6. 6. H7N9 Influenza
    7. 7. Superstorm Sandy
    8. 8. Emily Rahimi @FDNY
    9. 9. Mobile Twitter Use NYC homes without power Tweets sent via mobile interface
    10. 10. June 2013 Philadelphia Building Collapse
    11. 11. 2013 Alberta, Canada Floods
    12. 12. Sandy Recovery
    13. 13. Washington, Illinois
    14. 14. Closing
    15. 15. Incidents, Emergencies, Disasters and Social Media
    16. 16. Thank you @jgarrow