Retweet, like, or share: How social media is changing the face of emergency management

November 3, 2014

It’s no longer unusual to learn about a severe weather warning or police manhunt through a “tweet” or a “wall post”. These words refer to common practices on Twitter and Facebook, but were not part of our vocabulary a decade ago. Today, whether it is for personal or professional reasons, the majority of Canadians are engaging with one another through social media websites every day.

Despite their overwhelming popularity, emergency management and first responder organizations are just beginning to use social media for their daily business. These platforms provide them with another way to quickly communicate alerts, warnings and preparedness messages to the public when time is of the essence. They can connect with citizens at the click of a button and the public also has a new way to reach out to first responders. The benefits go both ways.

Over the last few years, there have been many real life situations that have demonstrated the value of connecting with the public through social media.

In June 2014, a young man shot and killed three New Brunswick Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. Almost immediately following the shooting, alerts were sent out to the public through the New Brunswick RCMP’s Twitter account. Updates included information about the armed individual, what streets were blocked off, and even images of maps indicating search areas. Local citizens also used their own social media accounts to post safety warnings and photos of where the shooter had been spotted.

The previous year, in June 2013, Calgary experienced severe flooding. This led to the evacuation of over 75,000 citizens. Media outlets, relief organizations, City services and politicians used social media extensively to support response and recovery. But most of all it was used by Calgary’s citizens. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Albertans shared critical information, organized community groups, and offered their support to those in need. Over 15,000 volunteers were coordinated, through social media, to help with clean-up efforts.

Emergency management has traditionally been reserved for select officials and large institutions within industry and government. But scenarios like these illustrate how social media has allowed civilians to informally participate during emergency and security responses. It has also created the opportunity for volunteers to join virtual groups like the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork). This organization is leading the way in volunteer-driven “crisis-mapping” and “crowd-sourcing”. During a crisis, these digital volunteers collect key information from hundreds of on-line sources and display the most critical data through a computerized map.

Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, DHNetwork’s involvement has become a key part of the international community’s response to major disasters. In addition, several countries have now formed Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs). These local emergency management organizations perform a variety of digital support services such as monitoring, filtering, and mapping of relevant information.

The use of social media has far reaching implications for Canada’s emergency management community not all of which are fully understood. This includes formalizing how virtual volunteers collaborate with emergency management communities.

Recognizing the importance of this issue, the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) is funding the Social Media in Emergency Management (SMEM) project. This ongoing project is exploring how social media can support emergency management efforts. One of the project’s main goals is to identify best practices for improved cooperation between official responders, virtual volunteers and the general public through social media tools. Ultimately, this will improve information-sharing and build stronger communities at both the local and national level.

As part of the project, Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) partnered with the City of Calgary and the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) to hold Canada’s first Expert Roundtable on Social Media for Emergency Management in October 2013. This first stage allowed the participants to collaborate and exchange views on the way forward for SMEM in Canada.

Jason Cameron, CEMA’s Manager of Business Continuity & Recovery Planning, shared, “It was an amazing opportunity for CEMA and the City to participate amongst national leaders in disaster innovation.”

The next milestone of this two-year project will be the Digital Volunteer-Supported Disaster Recovery Experiment scheduled to take place in Halifax during the Canadian Red Cross’s Disaster Management Forum in November 2014. This experiment will look at how emergency management officials, the Canadian Red Cross and virtual volunteers from Canada and the United States can use social media tools to coordinate a more effective response by working together during the recovery phase of a major disaster.

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