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Community Outreach During Disasters Improving with Social Media

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By Merritt Kearns                           
Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Public University

According to the National Incident Management System and the National Response Framework, community outreach during disasters is the responsibility of public information officers (PIO). PIOs must keep the public informed with accurate and timely information within the framework of the incident command system.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “During an incident or planned event, coordinated and timely communication is critical to effectively help the community. Effective and accurate communication can save lives and property, and helps ensure credibility and public trust.” 

The use of social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, as well as group email and text alerts by emergency management organizations and PIOs has grown exponentially in recent years. Many organizations use social media to quickly and accurately disseminate information to the community during disasters and emergency response situations; to warn of approaching severe weather; to reroute traffic; and to announce evacuations. Social media has effectively changed the toolbox of the PIO.

Emergency management organizations use social media successfully in their communities each and every day. One example of the proper use of social media during a disaster occurred in October 2012 when Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, with New Jersey and NYC seeing the most severe damage.  Millions of citizens were impacted and first responders where overwhelmed. Emergency communication centers were jammed and civilians were unable to contact a dispatcher due to the amount of traffic on the phone lines.

However, citizens were able to tweet and post Facebook updates. The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) monitored these social sites, responded to citizens, and notified dispatchers where to send ambulances, fire trucks, and police officers.

PIO Emily Rahimi is responsible for monitoring FDNY’s twitter account, which has 65,000 followers. Rahimi disseminates information that is accurate and timely and also monitors Twitter and Facebook posts and the web for false and misleading information.  It is important for PIOs of emergency management organizations to look for inaccurate information and dispel that information before it spreads. The wrong information can lead to public panic and complicate emergency response operations.

During Superstorm Sandy, Twitter user @ComfortablySmug tweeted to his 6,500 followers “BREAKING: Con Edison has begun shutting down all power in Manhattan.” and “BREAKING: Governor Cuomo is trapped in Manhattan. Has been taken to a secure shelter.” Neither of these tweets were true, but the information spread like wildfire. Rahimi had to counter the misinformation and direct Twitter users to the appropriate handles to follow including @FDNY, @NYCMayorsOffice and @NotifyNYC. 

Social media channels, including Twitter and Facebook, have changed the rules for PIOs in the field of emergency management. While social media can be used in many positive ways that can be time-saving and even life-saving, PIOs need to monitor for false information. The possibilities are seemingly endless for emergency management professionals to discover new and innovative ways to use social media to update and inform communities with accurate and timely information. 

About the Author: Merritt Kearns is a faculty member in the School of Public Service and Health. He is an instructor in the Emergency and Disaster Management and Fire Science Management programs at APU. Merritt’s fire service experience includes the Savannah Fire Department and the Statesboro, GA Fire Department, where he currently serves as a Captain.

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