FEMA chief taps social media's potential for aiding disaster response

'Two-way conversation' with the public pursued through designing communication systems for easy access by online masses.

A cell phone starts shaking on a coffee table in California, instantly triggering an application that alerts the phone's owner to drop to the ground, take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture and hold on until the earthquake stops.

The resident sends a text message through the social media site Twitter, saying, "Quake.Trapped.555CreekSt90210." Soon after the magnitude 7 quake strikes, emergency responders locate and free the victim, and Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, already has started mobilizing to rush in electrical power, food and shelter.

This is the not-too-distant future for Fugate, who has seen cell phones equipped with accelerometers that measure vibration, he said. Under the alias "@CraigatFEMA," he currently searches the Twittersphere regularly for signs of state, local and national emergencies.

Disaster victims in this scenario are not seen as victims, but rather as a crucial part of the rescue-and-response team, Fugate told reporters after delivering remarks at an annual conference for federal officials convened in Washington by mapping software company ESRI. The firm is helping FEMA gain a realistic view of the scope of emergencies by displaying data from social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook onto maps.

"The idea is that you can start moving information out and putting information in a format that is more specific and at a geographic point," Fugate said. "We have to learn how to communicate with the public, the way they communicate."

The problem with a lot of agency websites is that "a lot of the information was determined by the agency," Fugate said. "If you've got information that's useful to the public, put it out as a data feed. Use tools like [the federal statistics clearinghouse] Data.gov to kind of catalog, put this stuff together -- so [users] don't have to go agency by agency, Web page by Web page to find information."

FEMA, however, is not there yet. The agency is working to build apps for various mobile platforms and tag its data so it will be easier for the public to find online, Fugate said.

"Don't make the public fit how we do business," he said he tells his staff and other federal personnel. "It's a disaster. Your home's been destroyed. Do you need any more hassles?"

But there are some regulatory and logistical challenges that accompany this social rescue approach. For one, privacy must be considered when a federal agency is collecting information from citizens. Some people on the scene of a fire, for example, might be hesitant to post an observation about the damage for fear the data will be traced back to them, possibly subjecting them to suspicions of arson.

"How do we carry on a two-way conversation with the public, where we're not identifying people who would not otherwise put information out there?" Fugate said he asked himself. The solution: "We don't want to collect and store information. I don't want to create a record. I don't want to capture it on my system as a public record."

Threats to privacy are not a reason to stop tapping the online masses for assistance, he said.

Other obstacles include the aversion of some people to new technology because of age, culture or biases. Social media do not have a uniform demographic base, so the alerts won't reach an entire affected population, Fugate said. Emergency responders must continue to rely on radio, TV and fliers to get messages out.

What's more, connectivity can complicate online interactions during a crisis, but that is becoming less of a problem, according to Fugate. For example, in the aftermath of last year's earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. government and organizations flew down Wi-Fi access points, satellite dishes and satellite phones to provide more communication capabilities.

"We kind of look at Haiti as an example [showing] that the cell system is much more reliable," he said.