The emergency management agency has ramped up its mobile presence and is working to get cellphone chargers to disaster zones.
The ease with which disaster victims can pass along safety information and track down friends and family on social media sites has created expectations that emergency responders often can't live up to, officials said Thursday.
More than three out of four respondents to a 2010 Red Cross survey, for instance, would expect help to arrive in less than an hour if they posted a message to an emergency response agency's Facebook page.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn't set up to respond to Facebook posts requesting help or to forward those posts on to local emergency managers, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told a Senate Homeland Security panel on disaster response Thursday.
In other cases, disaster and crime victims have sent text messages to 911, not realizing that the majority of emergency call centers aren't equipped to accept texts, Fugate said.
The Transportation Department is working on a project called Next Generation 9-1-1, aimed at equipping emergency call centers to take reports through text messages and ultimately, perhaps, through websites and social media.
Some European emergency response centers are already equipped to take live video from people at disasters, fires and crime scenes and feed it back to police, firefighters and other responders on their way to the scene, Fugate said.
After the second deadliest storm in U.S. history ripped through the Southeast on April 27, many disaster victims turned to Facebook, Twitter and other social media to gather information about the storm and to tell friends and family they were safe. Local television stations were hosting streams of Twitter traffic about emergency services, power outages and driving conditions, and businesses and government agencies were updating their workers about office closures through social media sites.
FEMA has pledged to make Twitter a major avenue for its disaster response information, but its Twitter traffic has remained largely a one-way street, with the agency broadcasting notices and alerts but failing to follow the response in real time or to gather information from other users.
The agency has begun to monitor comments on its Facebook and Twitter feeds more closely during emergencies and, in limited cases, to repost or re-Tweet citizens' reports about weather conditions, power outages and other information, Fugate told the Homeland Security Department panel chaired by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
This is a culture shift from earlier days when the agency viewed most citizens' reports skeptically because they hadn't been officially verified, he said.
But FEMA has learned from monitoring early social media reports about the tsunami that hit Japan in March and the February 2010 Chilean earthquake that during the crucial hours after a natural disaster, citizens' social media reports often come faster than official reports. Also, with an increasing number of reports coming in, emergency officials are becoming better at separating out solid information from panic, pranks and hyperbole.
"We look at them now as data points," Fugate said. "Individually, they're not the best information, but collectively they can be the earliest and best reports of the severity of an impact."
FEMA launched a mobile site in April 2010 aimed at communicating with disaster victims who'd lost power to their televisions and computers but still had cellphone reception.
The agency was slow to adopt mobile technology, Fugate said, because officials assumed a major storm, earthquake or other disaster would knock out cell service for as long or longer than electrical power. When FEMA helped with the 2010 Haiti earthquake response, though, officials realized mobile technology was the fastest to come back online.
During the Haiti response, people trapped in debris and rubble often texted their locations to friends and family or directly to emergency responders who were able to dig them out, Fugate said.
During April's tornadoes, Alabama media reported that many people who had fallen out of contact with friends and family had working cellphones but no power to charge them. For years FEMA has brought phone banks to disaster zones so displaced people can call friends and family to report that they're safe. Now the agency has begun working with industry to bring cellphone chargers to FEMA camps.
While the FEMA mobile page may be the best individual disaster response tool, it's little use to the majority of citizens who are unlikely to download the application before they're faced with a disaster, Fugate said. That's why it's important that the agency also send out alerts through Facebook, Twitter and other applications that are likely to already be on people's smartphones and to be rapidly reposted.
"Some of my peers now equate the wireless combined with social media as a revolution in emergency management as powerful as the original public radio systems," Fugate said. "But this is more far-reaching in its ability to communicate with the public."