UR Peeps are ready to Use SM in an Emergency, R U?

By:  Robert Avsec

Natural disasters have an impact on close to 900,000 people in the USA every year.  Those same disasters, e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes, floods,

Hurricane Sandy 2012

Hurricane Sandy 2012

earthquakes, etc., account for four hundred deaths and thousands of injuries.  The total negative impact on the U.S. economy from all natural disasters runs close to $18 billion annually.

The evolution of communication tools is relentless.  Hardline telephones which were once the “big dog”, have been surpassed by wireless phones, which are now being “jumped” by social media (SM) and other on-line communication tools.  And the evolution continues as Internet-based communication tools, which heretofore has been used to “push” information out to social networks, are morphing into social networks that can assimilate the contributions of thousands of users.

The emergency management community has only just begun to utilize this concept of social networks to capture the collective knowledge of the public to direct response and save lives.  But to do this effectively and efficiently your organization and community need a social media strategy.  Merely adding a Twitter or RSS feed to your emergency management plan is not a strategy.

What’s hot in SM?

What’s not hot in SM?

Organizations and communities that use SM to gather information and resources from the community during a disaster or emergency situation (Inbound & Outbound Communication)

Using SM solely as an additional channel—like radio and TV news and print media—and then only for the distribution of information (Outbound Communication)


In August 2010 the American Red Cross released the results of an on-line survey that it had commissioned to evaluate the influence of social media (SM) during disasters and emergencies.  Infogroup, a leading provider of business data, and marketing solutions, selected 1,058 individuals aged 18 years and older from a pool of volunteers who had previously agreed to take part in such an on-line survey regarding the role of SM in disasters and emergencies.

Even three years ago, social media was quickly becoming the “tool of choice” during catastrophic events for a variety of reasons that include:

Outbound Communication (People are looking for information)

Outbound Comms with SM

Question: How likely would you be to sign up for emails, text alerts, or applications that provided you with the following information in an agency? (The base for this question was the 72% of the respondents who had previously indicated that they use at least one social media channel online community or social network. Percentages indicate those who probably or definitely would).













Inbound Communication (People want to report what they see or hear to the authorities)

Inbound Communications with SM

Question: If you came across the following emergencies or newsworthy events, how likely would you be to mention them on your social media channels? (The base for this question was the 72% of the respondents who had previously indicated that they use at least one social media channel (online community or social network. Percentages indicate those who probably or definitely would).











Almost 3 out of every 4 respondents stated that they participated in at least one type of SM or on-line community.  Amongst the leaders were:

  • Facebook – 48 percent of responses;
  • YouTube – 31 percent;
  • MySpace – 24 percent;
  • Twitter – 15 percent; and
  • Yahoo Groups – 12 percent.

(Considering the relative disappearance of MySpace from the SM “universe”, and the emergence of Twitter, Pintrest, Instagram, and others, I suspect that these Top 5 social media outlets would look very different today).

So who are the users on a daily basis?

  • 81 percent said they are in a household with children (67 percent from childless households);
  • 78 percent said they were college graduates (67 percent said they had some college or less); and
  • For the 18-34 year old age bracket, 89 percent said they use social media networks or on-line communities (In the 35+ age group, only 65 percent indicated that they were on-line).

Now let’s talk about social media and what the survey results showed regarding disasters and emergencies. In response to the question, Which of the following communication channels have you ever used to get information about an emergency such as a power outage, severe weather, flash flood, hurricane, earthquake, or tornado?, this is what respondents said:

How do people get info in disasters

In October 2012, our neighbors to the north, the Canadian Red Cross (CRC), conducted a similar survey of Canadians and their attitudes toward social media and emergencies.  The CRC study found that 64 percent of Canadians use social media (No surprise there, right?)  On a more interesting note, 63 percent of the survey respondents have an expectation that their local emergency responders use social media as well.

And they don’t just think those responders should just use social media.  They have an expectation (63 percent) that a call for help that’s posted on a SM site, e.g., Facebook or Twitter, should get the appropriate public safety response.  How many of the respondents believe that help would arrive if they posted their emergency on SM?  One third.

There are many other ways social media can be used in emergencies. Fifty four percent of Canadians indicate they would use these tools to let friends and family know they are safe in an emergency. About half of respondents (49 percent) say they would sign up for electronic alerts in times of official warnings. Although television (39 percent) and radio (26 percent) are popular ways of accessing news during an emergency, 31 percent of Canadians would turn to electronic means such as websites, social media or wireless Internet devices, e.g., phones, tablets, notebook computers, etc.

Social Media is becoming the “Go To” Communication Tool for Disaster Response

One in five Americans has used an emergency app on the wireless phone, tablet or computer.  When natural disasters struck, those affected Americans used social media to:

  • Contact friends and family (76 percent);
  • Find shelter and supplies (37 percent); and
  • Let loved ones know they were safe (24 percent).

SEE ALSO: 13 Gadgets to Prepare You for a Natural Disaster

The following infographic, created by the folks at the University of San Francisco’s On-line Masters of Public Administration program, details how social media has revolutionized communications during natural disasters.

SM Infographic USF

Click on the image to see the entire infographic at the USF’s On-line MPA Program






Being ready for the twin “floods”:  Inbound and Outbound Information

Let’s take a closer look at Inbound and Outbound communication using some guidelines contained in the white paper, Emergency Situation Awareness from Twitter for Crisis Management.  In the paper, Mark Cameron and his colleagues submit that a social media strategy for emergency managers should address several key areas including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Listen.  Have the ability to hear about unexpected or unusual incidents, possibly ahead of official communications;
  • Analysis.  The ability to condense and summarize inbound messages about an incident, while maintaining awareness of aggregated content without having to read individual messages;
  • Prioritize.  The ability to classify and review high-value messages during an incident, e.g. messages describing critical infrastructure damage or cries for help;
  • See the “big picture”.  Understand the impact of an incident on people and infrastructure;
  • Adjust to Changing Conditions.  Identify, track, and manage issues within an incident as they arise, develop, and conclude; pro-actively identify and manage issues that may last for hours, days or weeks; and
  • Review.  The ability to perform forensic analysis of incidents by analyzing social media content from before, during, and after an incident.

So what’s your social media strategy look like?

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About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].