Aug
13

Emergencies and Social Media

Kristin Gossel

Before joining Powell Tate, I ran the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready Campaign, so I am familiar with emergency preparedness and response at a professional level – but last week it got personal for me when my neighborhood was hit by a powerful thunderstorm.

As I posted photos on my Facebook page, sent text messages to friends and family and submitted a question to an online chat with Dominion Virginia Power officials, I realized just how much communication has changed since Ready was launched in 2003.

When the national campaign to educate and empower Americans to prepare for and respond to emergencies was developed, social media as we know it did not exist. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had not been invented and the number of text messages and emails sent were a fraction of what they are today. Online communication was more or less a one-way street.

Today, in our highly connected society, we use digital communications tools to interact with each other online in virtually every situation, including emergencies.

A survey released yesterday by the American Red Cross found that Americans use social media not only to send and receive information about emergencies, but to seek help. If they needed help and couldn’t reach 911, one in five said they would try to contact first responders using digital communications. When asked if they would use social media to request help for others, 44 percent said they would ask individuals in their social network to contact authorities; and 63 percent said they would request help from a first response agency directly using Facebook or Twitter.

Are first responders ready and prepared for this new communications reality? According to an article in yesterday’s Washington Post , “90 percent of first responders said they don't have the staffing to monitor incoming messages and respond rapidly.”

The Red Cross and others are working to address this problem and hosted an Emergency Social Data Summit this week in Washington with that goal in mind. As the key players discuss better ways to handle digital communications during emergencies, I hope they find some real solutions that will allow today’s communications landscape to enhance our ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies.

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