Social media tends to be a one-way communication for FEMA

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The tools are one way to get the message out about disasters, said George Haddow, who served as deputy chief of staff at FEMA under James Lee Witt, FEMA administrator during the Clinton administration.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency used social media tools to inform the public as a major winter storm moved across the country this week, but experts said the agency should make it a two-way street and listen to what the public is saying as well.

On its Twitter page, FEMA has been Tweeting updates about storm preparedness and its effects to more than 29,200 followers. The Tweets are informative, such as linking to new data about the storm on the agency's website, as well as service-oriented: "If you'll be removing snow/ice in the next few days, take frequent breaks: Cold temps & exertion can cause a heart attack #blizzard." The agency also posted daily blizzard updates on Facebook for its nearly 26,000 fans.

"Under Administrator [Craig] Fugate's leadership and direction, we have continued a robust effort to use social media channels [in] our communications toolbox to engage the public, our many partners and stakeholders, and keep them informed of our work," said FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Rascuen in an e-mail.

For example, Fugate maintains his own Twitter feed, Craig@FEMA, where updates to his nearly 6,500 followers have included: "The #blizzard hit, now what? Don't forget those fire hydrants as you dig out & check on your neighbors. www.ready.gov www.listo.gov #snomg."

Fugate said in a Jan. 14 blog post there was "no question [social media] tools have already changed the field of emergency management -- and will continue to do so. As emergency managers, we will have to be flexible and agile and quickly adopt as new technologies and communications tools emerge."

The tools are one way to get the message out about disasters, said George Haddow, who served as deputy chief of staff at FEMA under James Lee Witt, FEMA administrator during the Clinton administration.

FEMA is using the tools and that's "very encouraging," said Haddow, who is now a principal at Bullock and Haddow LLC, an emergency preparedness consultancy. "They are making a commitment in getting information to people and not just stakeholders."

But Haddow said the agency also should capture and relay the kind of practical information people really need in a crisis, such as which Chicago shelters accept dogs, or which gas stations have fuel -- common questions during evacuations.

"It's a two-way street," he said. "I think they're doing a pretty good job of getting information out to the public, and I think they're still in building form, [determining] how to get information from the public and[disseminate it] through the same circuits."

By using social media, FEMA also is able to get out the message it wants, said Connie White, an assistant professor at the Institute of Emergency Preparedness at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

"The beauty of social media is that the information doesn't get translated in the process," she said. "This is different from word of mouth, where the meaning can change from one person to the next."

But White also agreed FEMA should make better use of software to track updates from the ground. By using Twitter with a [GPS locator] device, people can report when they encounter serious conditions, she said, and FEMA could provide real-time situational awareness .