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...


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.

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