Developing emergency managers' capacity to benefit from social media requires more than simply training them to monitor Facebook pages and to adopt new technology to separate sound from noise in the cacophonous Twitter feed following a disaster, experts said Thursday.
To use social media effectively during emergencies, officials also must have in place a social community so that affected people know where to turn when they're out of water, trapped in their homes, or don't have information about where to find shelter, experts said during a panel discussion sponsored by the Wilson Center think tank's Science and Technology Innovation Program.
As things stand, panelists said, emergency managers' adoption of social media is scattershot across the country and while the public often rushes to Facebook and Twitter during emergencies, police, firefighters and other responders are unprepared to deal with this situation. According to a recent American Red Cross survey, for example, more than one-third of respondents said they expected help to arrive in less than one hour if they posted a request to an emergency response agency on Facebook or Twitter. Yet many police stations and regional emergency response agencies don't actively monitor their Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Thursday's discussion followed the publication of a report by CNA Analysis and Solutions, a research firm that focuses on public policy issues.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has launched an aggressive Twitter campaign in recent years, largely because it wants to develop a community of followers that it can draw on for information both during emergencies and to alert the agency to problems with post-disaster services, said Rachel Racusen, FEMA public affairs director.
"If we rely on the government alone to do the job, whether it's as emergency managers or anything else we do at FEMA, we're going to fail," she said. "We need to take all the needs of the entire community into account when we do disaster planning, including preparation, response, recovery efforts and mitigation efforts."
Social media has been used to worthwhile effect during natural disasters such as Ushahidi's Haiti project, which took in text messages from affected Haitians, crowdsourced the texts' translation into English by farming them out to a network of diaspora Haitian in the United States and Europe, and sent them back within a day or two to aid workers on the scene.
Most recent disasters, though, have highlighted the challenges of using social media as much as the benefits.
One of the biggest barriers to leveraging Twitter during disasters, for instance, is sifting out important information, such as Tweets from people trapped in collapsed buildings or at ad hoc shelters that are short of food and water, from the larger universe of Tweets and re-Tweets, panelists said Thursday.
One of the greatest benefits of following Twitter effectively is that it raises the amount of information an emergency response coordinator has to work with by tenfold or more, said Pascal Schuback, an emergency management coordinator in the Seattle area.
"We're getting better numbers than we've ever got before," Schuback said. "If you look at the county where I'm from in Seattle, we've got 2 million people. If I get just 1 percent of that, that's 20,000 people telling me what's going on. That's more than all the officers I have in the region and more than can ever go through a call center or a radio. I've got this nice radio, but only one person can talk through it at a time."
Another benefit of mining Twitter and other social media for emergency response information is that it can easily be done remotely, Schuback said. That means if Seattle's emergency responders are out in the field dealing with a major disaster, most of the communications work can be farmed out to colleagues in Denver, Chicago or elsewhere, he said.