Social Media and Disaster Management

As demonstrated by last fall’s unexpected snowfall in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and the ensuing lengthy outages and public outrage, crisis communications is a hot topic for power utilities. And in addressing that topic, the role of social media is getting attention as a tool for disaster management.

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, "Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations," discusses how the new communications technologies can be used and how emergency management officials are using tools such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and mobile text messaging. The report also discusses "lessons learned" and "best practices" for the use of social media in disaster management.

Social media, the CRS report observes, can be used "passively to disseminate information and receive user feedback via incoming messages, wall posts, and polls." This, the report notes, is how most institutions currently use social media. Alternatively, says the CRS, social media can be used "systematically" as a proactive tool. In this approach, social media can be used to issue warnings, receive requests for assistance, monitor user activities, and help create damage estimates. This approach, says the CRS, today remains "speculative," although it is garnering increased interest.

Last May, notes the report, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced a plan to expand the federal emergency alert system, which currently uses radio and television, to include mobile phones, using text messages. This plan, says the report, "enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas through cell towers, which then push information to dedicated receivers." FEMA administrator Craig Fugate has met with representatives from Apple, Craigslist, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter on how to better use their technologies. Fugate told a congressional committee that possible future applications could include smartphone-friendly versions of FEMA websites and social media applications to help connect citizens, first responders, volunteer groups, government, and all levels of the private sector.

The CRS report presents some examples of how social media have been used in disaster communications recently. Among them:

  • In 2009, the U.S. Army used Twitter to provide updates and news on the Fort Hood shootings. The American Red Cross uses Facebook to issue alerts on possible disasters. But the CRS report observes that most information in these examples was "generally posted by citizens, rather than emergency management agencies or organizations." During the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, for example, warning messages on the Internet "came primarily from students and unofficial sources."
  • In 2008 during Hurricane Gustav, the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) sent mass email notifications through Facebook to team members when its normal call notification system went down in the storm. The CRS noted, "The CERT group also updated status messages to notify first responders and citizens of developments as the incident unfolded."

It is unclear whether and how electric systems are using social media for emergency and crisis communications, although the topic is on the agenda for many utilities. In 2009, Chicago-based Exelon surveyed the industry about the use of social media in general. Exelon’s Jeff Burdick reported that 60% of those surveyed were using Twitter "to a certain degree" and that New York’s Consolidated Edison had signed up 1,400 customers for regular Facebook updates, only a tiny portion of the company’s 4 million customers. According to Burdick, seven companies—Ameren, Dominion, Duke, FPL, Progress Energy, SCANA, and Southern Co.—were using social media for crisis communications.

In 2010, Mark Basnight, a former public relations executive with a large metropolitan fire department, started a new business, The Crisis Communications Network (TCCN), to advance the use of social media by public safety departments, utilities, public health agencies, emergency management, and broadcast news media. That year, he sponsored a meeting, "Social Media 4 Responders," to bring these organizations together to start talking about using media in crisis communications. TCCN plans a second meeting this year in Charlotte, N.C.

The CRS report concludes, "Social media appear to be making inroads into emergency management for a variety of reasons. For one, accurate, reliable, and timely information is vital for public safety before, during, and after an incident. As people continue to embrace new technologies, use of social media will likely increase. Moreover, as its popularity grows, a significant number of people will likely choose social media as their main source of information."

Yet CRS is cautious. "The costs associated with social media are also unknown," says the report. "For many, however, the greatest concerns are the unanticipated outcomes that might result from its use. It could be argued that the positive results of social media witnessed thus far have been largely anecdotal and that the use of social media is insufficiently developed to draw reliable conclusions on the matter. By this measure, it should therefore be further examined and researched before being adopted and used for emergencies and disasters."

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.