How social media can save communities when disaster strikes

Innovative use of social media platforms can help responders overcome communication challenges during disaster response

2017 was a historic year for natural disasters in the U.S. The nation was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events including three tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two inland floods and wildfires.

While each disaster brought specific challenges, first responders faced the constant battle to maintain emergency communications and keep their citizens informed. Communication and information issues were encountered during multiple disasters in a short period of time. While public communication infrastructures failed due to overwhelming need, innovative use of new applications and social media served to help responders overcome these challenges.

At APCO’s 84th Annual Conference, held August 5-8 in Las Vegas, social media consultants Rebecca Williams and Carol Spencer outlined how to ensure your disaster communications response plan incorporates new technologies.

Maria Rocha places debris outside her home in a neighborhood that was flooded by Hurricane Harvey in Beaumont, Texas, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017.
Maria Rocha places debris outside her home in a neighborhood that was flooded by Hurricane Harvey in Beaumont, Texas, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

How to connect when connections are down

There are many ways social media can disseminate information to citizens, which helps to decrease the call load communications centers face during a natural disaster.

Nextdoor was heavily utilized during Hurricane Harvey, with an 800 percent increase in posts, replies and alerts during the response to the storm.

If landlines are down, people may still be able to get alerts and notifications via WiFi on social media channels.

“The Zello app, which is a push-to-talk app for mobile devices and PCs, was utilized during Harvey,” Rebecca Williams told APCO attendees.

There are also other options for people to get alerts on their cell phones even when cell service is down, noted Carol Spencer. For example, if you send a text to 40404 with a message to say you want to follow a particular Twitter handle, every tweet put out by that Twitter account will be delivered as a text message, so even people with clamshell phones can get an agency’s tweets as text messages.

“Twitter does not actively promote this, so agencies need to include this information on their websites head of time so that bandwidth can be preserved during an emergency,” said Spencer.

The importance of legitimacy

During natural disasters there is an explosion of information posted on social media from many different sources. While many of these posts are well meaning, they often lack accurate and current information.

“There needs to be a single, reliable, official source of information that is set up in advance,” said Spencer. “People will look for sources of information and, if it looks official, they might believe it. A lot of jurisdictions do not have people who understand these technologies. You need to train your people to understand both the business and emergency uses of your social media channels.”

Spencer also recommends a social media representative is in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and that individual is authorized to post comments and information on your social media networks without getting approval from the chain of command.

“Have prewritten messaging for various disasters that have all the preparedness information your citizens would need. Publish stuff in time for people to react,” said Spencer.

Maintaining engagement on your social media channels

For many departments only a small fraction of their community members follow agency pages on social media, so how do you ensure you get information out to the masses?

“Facebook changes have reduced the number of people who see your posts, so it means you must be proactive with your strategy. Humor is a great way of connecting and building followers, so put our memes and be funny to pull people in before emergencies hit,” said Spencer.

It is also important to match the social medium you use not only to your community demographics but also to the type of disaster. With Twitter, information can be disseminated much faster than Facebook, advises Spencer.

Steps agencies can take to incorporate social media into disaster communications

Williams and Spencer shared several steps agencies can take to incorporate social media into their disaster communications plan:

  • Do not reinvent the wheel. Find someone has already been involved using social media to connect with communities during a natural disaster and ask them what did and didn’t work.
  • Read after-action reports and other official documents that outline lessons learned.
  • Document who is available to help outside of your area if your local infrastructure is demolished. People posting to your social media sites could even be located in a different state if you arrange this ahead of time.
  • Become familiar with nationwide charities in your area that can assist with communication efforts.
  • Form local Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD). 

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