Tweet this: Emergency communications takes on a new partner

In late October, super storm Sandy knocked the Northeast to its knees, initiating a transition from traditional methods of emergency communication such as televised press conferences and emergency radio broadcasts, to the use of Internet social media to get the word out.

Before, during, and after the storm public officials like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with the public. The transition to social media in emergencies began even earlier. In March, 2010, when Rhode Island experienced record flooding that at one point closed nearly 100 roads and 20 bridges, the state’s Department of Transportation used its RIDOT website, as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter, to keep the public advised of new closures.

“On a typical day, the RIDOT site sees about 2,100 hits,” says RIDOT spokesperson Dana Nolfe. “At the height of the flooding, we saw 84,000 hits.” Twitter followers jumped from double digits to 1,150.

In Texas, the use of Facebook and Twitter by the Plano Department of Emergency Management allows the city to push information to local communities instantly. Rather than posting information to a website and hoping citizens look at it, we can engage them online where they are. Citizens no longer need a computer to access Twitter and Facebook—social media is available on their iPhones or Blackberrys. Plano also has a presence on YouTube, Flickr, and MySpace that can be used to unify messages in the event of major disaster.

Elephant in the IC

The use of social media by public officials during crisis and disaster is growing so fast, one disaster management expert says social media has become the elephant in the command center. The problem lies in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework—the nationally-accepted model for emergency public information for emergencies and disasters.

“The application of NIMS guidelines and social media for emergency public information is currently counterproductive,” says Adam Crowe, of the Johnson County, Kansas, office of Emergency Management. NIMS calls for all information released to the public during an emergency to be reviewed and approved by incident commanders. Crowe said that this structured review and approval process greatly reduces the effectiveness of social media.

“This is contradictory to the speed, pace, and expectations of the social media community,” Crowe said. His paper (“The Elephant in the JIC: The Fundamental Flaw of Emergency Public Information with the NIMS Framework,” Vol 7, Issue 1, 2010), appearing in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, exposed the flaw and called for a NIMS review to see how social media utilization during a response can fit into that system.

“My hope is that the article will inspire discussions at all levels on how to address this issue before it’s too late,” Crowe says. One response has been an online interactive course offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency called “Social Media in Emergency Management.”

In Crowe’s own county, the sheriff’s office already uses both Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the public. During one 25-hour police stand-off with a barricaded suspect, Johnson County deputies posted tweets and updates related to area closures. “Social media provides an instant and unfiltered message to your community—you don’t have to wait for a news broadcast and your message is not changed by the media,” says deputy Tom Erickson.

Erickson adds that the key to using social media successfully is to establish a presence and build a following. “It’s too late to get in the social media game after an incident has already happened because no one is listening,” he notes. The key, he says, is to develop a base of followers early so when a disaster does occur managers can instantly communicate with the public.

End of one-way link

The growing use of social media in this way marks the beginning of the end of emergency communication as a static, one-way link between command posts and mobile units; the public has entered the conversation.

Another study published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (“Understanding the Dynamics of Emergency Communication: Propositions for a Four-Channel Model,”, Vol 7, Issue 1, 2010) looked at the role of the public as a participant in the process of emergency communications via the vehicle of social networking. This paper proposed a four-channel model of communication, incorporating newer mobile technologies such as cell phones and tools like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and Google Maps as a way to build a more robust emergency management communication structure than currently found in command centers of large-scale emergencies.

“The benefits of approaching emergency communication using the four-channel communication model is that it emphasizes the dynamic and transactional features of communication, and multiple and emergent audiences that occur during an emergency response,” says Laura Pechta, of the Department of Communication, Wayne State University.

The Pew Research Center reported in 2006 that 74 percent of Americans who own mobile phones say they have used their mobile device in an emergency. In 2012, cell phone use worldwide reached six billion. Pechta says that as the use of new mobile public networking technologies continues to expand, it creates obvious opportunities for emergency managers.

“Emergency response agencies and emergency managers must begin to view the public and media as partners in providing information for collective problem-solving,” Pechta suggests. Doing so is necessary in an age of new interactive technologies and a public that seeks a greater and more dynamic role in communicating about these events.

Social networking capabilities can be leveraged to increase situational awareness for incident commanders and to create partnerships with the public. In this way, agencies, the media, and the public are all viewed as participants in providing the most accurate information so that the best decisions can be made in a timely fashion to respond to disaster, so resources are not wasted or duplicated.

The four-channel communication model builds on the fact that the public generates its own information and shares it through various forums and technologies. Pechta said that the increasing use of social media in public-to-public communication during crises and disasters puts the public now at the center of a crisis, conveying important information and response needs.

“The application of new social media or Web 2.0 technologies increases the speed and richness of information shared across groups,” Pechta says. “Monitoring and use of these approaches by agencies will be necessary to maintain the most up-to-date and robust information to make decisions and respond to ongoing disasters.”

Disease tracking

Twitter is at the center of the emergency communication revolution. As of early 2012, Twitter had over 500 million users worldwide, generating over 340 million tweets daily. In one 24-hour period in February 2012, Twitter registered 894,000 new users. At this rate, it will reach 1 billion users sometime in the middle of 2013.

Paradigm shakers are finding new ways to harness this massive network for more than a means to tell the world what flavor bagel you just ate or how long your layover is at O’Hare. One idea uses Twitter to help public health officials track disease outbreak. According to a computer science expert at Southeastern Louisiana University, Twitter has the potential to track outbreaks of influenza or even an emerging biological warfare epidemic. The main attraction to Twitter is its speed. It also costs less than traditional methods of disease surveillance.

Currently, a slow, uncertain process called syndromic surveillance is used to collect health-related data to alert public health officials to the probability of an outbreak of influenza or other contagions. The present technique involves collecting data from hospitals and clinics. It’s a labor-intensive, time-consuming approach, from which the Centers for Disease Control produces weekly estimates. However, these estimates typically lag a week or more behind actual events.

“By monitoring a social network such as Twitter, researchers can capture comments from people with the flu who are sending out status messages,” said computer science and industrial technology professor Aron Culotta. Culotta said because Twitter monitoring is done in real time, it is able to detect outbreaks sooner than by traditional means of polling hospitals.

To get started, Culotta analyzed more than 500 million Twitter messages over the eight-month period of August 2009 to May 2010, collected using Twitter’s application programming interface. By using a few keywords to track rates of influenza-related messages, he obtained a 95-percent correlation with national health statistics. Initially, Culotta collected statistics for the whole country, but future work will extract information from messages more location-specific, which will allow regional reporting.

First light

There’s always a chance, of course, that there may be no network available in the aftermath of a devastating emergency. Power could be out for days. When the winds of super storm Sandy stopped, power was out in places from as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as the Carolinas, in some cases for weeks.

In anticipation of lengthy, blanket power outages, university researchers are testing a solar-powered emergency communication network—and therefore self-sustainable. This research, called Emergency Mesh by its University of Arkansas developers, is meant to distribute hazard alerts and map-based relief information to users during the aftermath of a natural or terror-related disaster. Researchers say everyone—disaster teams, police, fire, and members of the public— can use the system.

“There may be no network connectivity or access to the power grid after disasters,” said Arkansas computer science and engineering professor Nilanjan Banerjee. “Emergency Mesh would provide continuous, uninterrupted service on energy harvested from solar panels when the power grid or wireless systems are out of commission.”

Once deployed, the network could warn citizens how to get out of harm’s way and could also help emergency personnel reach victims faster. Banerjee said the network is a set of interconnected low-power solar panels. Users would use their smartphones or other mobile devices to connect to the network over Wi-Fi, similar to connecting to Wi-Fi access points at home.

“It’s important that Emergency Mesh communicates using popular, ubiquitous mobile devices, such as smartphones, because during chaotic and stressful times people need to rely on something that is already familiar to them,” Banerjee says. The system is designed so that map-based directions to relief camps or food stores can be downloaded to mobile devices.

Banerjee adds that the mesh can be thought of as a network of nodes that blanket a geographic area. Each solar-powered node contains geographic data that can be downloaded to users or communicated node-to-node, which is important in the event that a node or series of nodes fail, in which case the mesh is designed to automatically redistribute data to maintain service.


Douglas Page writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine Mountain, Calif. He can be reached at