How Prepared is Your Community to Communicate During Its Coming Crisis?

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Elk River Freedom Industries Location
Site of chemical spill into the Elk River, Charleston, WV that contaminated the water supply for approximately 300,000 people in the Kanawha River Valley.

Want to cripple a metropolitan area?  Take away its water.

On January 9, 2014 the water supply system for the city of Charleston, WV and nine surrounding counties was contaminated by a chemical spill into the Elk River, the water source used by the West Virginia American Water Company.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security dispatched FEMA to assist West Virginia with the management and clean-up of the spill that originated upstream from Freedom Industries.  That release allowed 5,000 gallons (think the contents of an above-ground swimming pool) of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol to enter the Kanawha Valley’s water treatment intake near Charleston.  The spill has affected 100,000 households—about 300,000 residents—according to the West Virginia American Water Company.

See Related: Charleston, WV Water Contamination

Freedom Industries Charleston Cease and

This happened on the morning of January 9th around 10 a.m. EST, but the first word of the impending disaster was not communicated to the affected population until roughly 5:00 p.m.  Those initial reports came from “breaking news” segments on local TV stations.  The presence of any form of communication via social media, text alerts, etc., was non-existent until later that evening when local residents began “chatting it up” on Twitter and Facebook.  Nothing, however, was coming out on those channels from the water company or local and state officials.

Foodland We have waterRumors and misinformation were rampant, to say the least.

So, what can your Fire and EMS department and your communities learn from this latest crisis (that was still on-going as I wrote this post on Sunday morning, January 12, 2014)?  You’ve got to be proactive!

In May 2013, I posted a blog here entitled, UR Peeps are ready to Use SM in an Emergency, R U?  The general public is ready, willing, and able to receive information via social media, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.  They are also able to post information.  Your problem is going to be: what information will they post?  Most likely, as was the case in this crisis in Charleston, it will be rumors and unverified information.  Come on people, it’s 2020 and we can do better!

Here are things that you and your department and your community NEED to do right now, today, before a crisis strikes your town (and it is not if, but when).

  • Have a Twitter account and Facebook Page set up.  Communicate these outlets to you community using press releases, links on your website (You do have a website, right?), outdoor advertising and Public Service Announcements.  Get your community “acclimated” to hearing about these outlets and how you will use them in an emergency.
  • Use those outlets EVERYDAY (before a crisis strikes) to communicate safety messages, news about upcoming events, significant incident around town, etc.  This is the basis for a Content Marketing Strategy.  You need to have a relationship (aka, “tuned in”) with the people in your community BEFORE you need to use these outlets for communication in a disaster situation.
  • Encourage members of your department, employees of your local government, and citizens in your locality to invite their Facebook Friends to LIKE your Facebook Page so that they start getting your messages.
  • When disaster strikes, start communicating early.  You might not have a lot of information to send out initially, but you want your target population to be “listening” and receptive to your upcoming information.  By getting started early in the event, you take the communication leadership role.
  • Establish an incident-specific Twitter hashtag for people to look to for that future information, e.g., #cwvwatercrisis2014 would have been a good one for this water contamination incident.
  • Make sure to include the hashtag on ALL posts to Twitter.  Get your local TV stations to post the hashtag on their broadcast screens and keep it there throughout the incident (You know, like the ones that are at the bottom of the screen when you’re watching your favorite TV show, e.g., #DWTS or #NCIS.
  • Get all agencies on the same page.  When you set up your Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or Joint Operations Center (JOC), your social media channels need to be an integral part of your Public Information operation, along with traditional outlets like TV and radio.
  • Use Twitter’s 140 characters as your “headline” service that directs people to new information on your Facebook Page and website.  Use your Facebook Page to provide expanded coverage and information that you want to get to the public.
  • Dedicate a person in the EOC or JOC to constantly monitor your Twitter feed and another to monitor postings to your Facebook Page.
Charleston WV Water Shortage
Shelves left bare of drinking water in grocery store in Charleston, WV area.

You need to do this for a couple of reasons: (1) so that you see rumors and misinformation as they are posted and (2) so that you can dispel the rumors and provide the correct information in real time.  This is a critical function if you are to establish effective two-way communication and trust with the public you are serving.

Don’t have a lot of staff for such functions?  Recruit social media-savvy volunteers in the community and train them to serve as “Social Media Analsysts” to work in the EOC or JOC.

There is a lot more that can be done to use social media in a community emergency, but this should be a good “starter kit”.  So what are you waiting for?  Your community emergency, either man-made or naturally occurring, is “just around the corner”.

How ready are you?

Learn More: What is content marketing?

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 and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail,