How Twitter helps in emergencies, disasters

A little more than a month ago, the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications held a hearing to study the effect social media tools have on emergency preparedness, recovery and response.

On July 9, the same committee held another hearing on social media and new tech’s transformation of preparedness, response and recovery in emergency situations, this time gaining insight from a panel of individuals working in the public sector.

The panel was made up of Shayne Adamski, Federal Emergency Management Agency’s senior manager of digital engagement; Suzanne DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross; Albert Ashwood, director at the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management; and Sgt. W. Greg Kierce, director at the Jersey City Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

The July 9 hearing comes a year after wildfires ravaged the Midwest, 39 days into the hurricane season, and three days after a disastrous plane crash at a San Francisco airport.


Social media have drastically changed the way people respond to emergency situations. One in five people will try to contact first responders through social media; 35 percent will post directly on a social media page; and 58 percent will tweet directly at emergency or relief organizations.

In yesterday’s remarks on using technology to improve government, President Barack Obama noted FEMA’s use of the Web and apps in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Twitter and Facebook were used to locate working gas stations, relief shelters, and as a way for people to communication with their loved ones.

The subcommittee last month heard testimony from several private-sector members, who emphasized the need for public-private partnerships and the importance of leveraging big data so response and recovery efforts can be focused on areas most in need.

“There is a need to establish common standards and procedures to help make the sharing of data more efficient,” said Susan Brooks, R-IN, subcommittee chairwoman.

Ranking member Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., called attention to the need to make data open and machine-readable in emergency situations.


“Agencies need to be providing data in a useable, open source format, so the high-technology companies like Google can easily and quickly incorporate it to their own webpages, apps and other portals,” he said.

Panel members strongly emphasized, however, that while social media and technology play a crucial role during emergency situations, a strong presence by relief officials on traditional forms of media is still needed.

Social media can supplement but not replace relief efforts, according to DeFrancis.  Agencies need to focus on reaching people through social media, but when power goes out or cell phones are down, reliable, alternate forms of communication are a must.

Furthermore, there needs to be improved monitoring of false and malicious rumors on social media during times of emergency. Adamski noted there are teams that constantly monitor and look out for these rumors and delete them to prevent confusion.

Besides power outages or cell towers going down in emergencies, traditional forms of media are still critical, according to the panel, because of the “digital divide” — the gap between generations of those who use social media and those who don’t.


“Older generations are going to have to conform,” Kierce said. “Change is coming, and people are going to have to step out of their comfort zones and embrace this new technology.”

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