The Role of Social Media in Emergency Preparedness and Recovery

Last month I attended a presentation about a research study which evaluated the content of State-level emergency preparedness websites. The reviewers were looking for the presence of essential components such as clear contact information and links to federal emergency preparedness resources. I raised my hand and asked, "Are you evaluating these websites/organizations for a social media presence?" I used the example of the most recent Philadelphia "emergency" I encountered, 15 inches of snow. I did not go onto the city's emergency management website for information. I follow NBCPhiladelphia and SEPTA (the city's mass transit system) on Twitter. So I looked at my phone to find out what offices were closed and which buses/trains were running or cancelled. As always the key question remains, how does your target population get their information? What systems will still be working in an emergency (e.g., what if you lose electricity or internet?)

Since last Friday, we have all been watching the sad and heartwrenching images from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And you may wonder, with so much of the country affected, how will people make contact with their loved ones and how will the government get critical information out quickly? This morning, Mashable ran an article called, "Social Media Plays Vital Role in Reconnecting Japan Quake Victims with Loved Ones". While the earthquake knocked out electricity, the internet remained largely intact. The US Embassy in Tokyo is trying to take advantage of this fact and is encouraging Americans in Japan to contact their loved ones via text message and social media (i.e., Facebook and Twitter). Facebook and Twitter analytics from the day of earthquake show incredibly high usage.

A recent post on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) blog discusses how social media is being considered as a key element in emergency preparedness. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate discusses a January 2011 planning meeting in which he met with the founder of Craigslist and editors from Wired, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook. He reports that they discussed:

  • "The need to provide information to the public as data feeds, because they are a key member of our emergency management team"
  • "The importance of referring to people impacted by a disaster as survivors and utilizing them as a resource"
  • "The importance of providing good customer service"
  • "How [emergency managers], need to stop trying to have the public fit into our way of doing things and receiving information, but that we should fit the way the public gets, receives and seeks out information"
It is great to hear that emergency managers are identifying social media as a powerful tool and planning how best to take advantage of it during an emergency.

Other online resources for making connections after a tragedy include:

Google Person Finder : This google service is used in the aftermath of such tragedies and allows users to click, "I am looking for someone" or "I have information about someone".

Red Cross Family Links: The purpose of this website is to help people get connected after being separated by disaster or conflict. Currently, there are links for Japan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Nepal, Iraq, and Somalia.
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