Defining a role for social media in emergency preparedness

By: John Chapman, Planner at the District of Squamish, formerly with Office of Emergency Management, City of Vancouver; Melissa Sutherland Public Engagement Specialist, City of Vancouver; Daniel Stevens, Director, Emergency Management, City of Vancouver

Social media has emerged as a key communications method for emergency response and recovery in recent years. Even when phone networks are down, social media has been valuable for quickly disseminating information to large audiences, reuniting families, and delivering real-time situational awareness to responding agencies. Social media applications also hold great promise for municipalities to engage with constituents, as they can be developed and used as low-cost and low-barrier methods to generate interest in community projects and events, increase civic participation, and gather input. By bringing it to the people, cities are increasing the reach of their engagement efforts. In some cases, these new tools and techniques are also being used for emergency preparedness efforts.

While social media can facilitate the spread of misinformation, it also creates opportunities for pro- active agencies to control the narrative and provide accurate, timely, and essential messaging to a wide audience, and at minimal cost. It is increasingly important for emergency response agencies to be online and active in social media, to manage messaging during dynamic and rapidly-changing emergency events.

The City of Vancouver has been proactive in developing digital tools for civic engagement. Active accounts on most popular platforms are continuously updated by a team of communications experts, providing space for residents to participate in municipal affairs. The City of Vancouver’s Twitter (70K+ followers) and Facebook (37.5K likes) accounts each have thousands of followers, who interact with the City and with each other on a daily basis, receiving information and instantaneously providing feedback. Ongoing messaging keeps followers engaged and informed, and the accounts can quickly be utilized to communicate emergency information to a large audience.

Talk Vancouver is an online engagement tool the City of Vancouver developed in collaboration with local software firm Vision Critical to elicit feedback and input from residents on important civic issues. Launched in 2013, it is a web-based platform, open to anyone over the age of 15 who lives, works, or studies in Vancouver. Currently there are over 4,300 self-selected members who are surveyed periodically on topics ranging from park expansion plans to selecting the official city bird.

Vancouver’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had an opportunity to use the Talk Vancouver panel to gather information on residents’ emergency preparedness efforts as part of Emergency Preparedness Week (a national campaign that takes place annually in early May). OEM staff prepared the questionnaire with assistance from Vancouver’s  Corporate  Communications department. The questionnaire ran for three weeks, and a total of 679 responses were gathered from the Talk Vancouver panel, a link on the City’s website, and social media posts.

We queried  respondents’  interest  in  emergency  preparedness, level of concern and awareness about types of emergencies, specific steps taken to become better prepared, barriers to being better prepared, and where people would look for information before, during, and after an emergency. We also collected basic demographic information from respondents, allowing us to cross-reference responses against variables such as age, gender, family structure, housing tenure, etc.

Notable results:

  •  92% of respondents are very or somewhat concerned about earthquakes. Pandemic, tsunami, and flooding were other common concerns.
  •  Almost half of respondents felt somewhat or very well prepared for an emergency.
  •  77% of respondents have taken at least some steps to prepare for emergencies. The most common actions: keeping emergency food and water, and preparing an emergency kit.
  •  Barriers to becoming more prepared include not making it a priority, lacking time, and lacking knowledge about how to prepare.
  •  84% of respondents will turn to radio for information during an emergency. The City of Vancouver’s website, television, Facebook and Twitter were other common responses. Predictably, younger Vancouverites were more likely to use social media to look for information before and during an emergency.

The survey provides a useful snapshot during a defined time period of attitudes towards, and awareness of, emergency preparedness. We hope to repeat the questionnaire annually, to collect longitudinal data showing changes in risk perception and emergency preparedness over time. Encouraging other jurisdictions to undertake similar research could lead to further learnings. Because the questionnaires were collected from a self-selected group, they are not necessarily representative of the views of all Vancouverites.

We expect governments to be responsive to constituents’  needs,  but  scarce  resources  and  competing demands for staff time leave little opportunity to involve citizens in decision making. Social media campaigns and surveys can be a low- cost option to lower barriers to participation for busy residents, and allow staff to quickly aggregate important data. Online engagement tools such as Talk Vancouver create new opportunities to participate and contribute, and can provide governments with useful data to feed into communications, policy development, program development, and resource allocation.

Digital technology and social media do not eliminate the need for other, more traditional forms of engagement and information gathering, but can help to close the knowledge gap and allow more voices to be heard.

Many thanks for the expertise of the City of Vancouver Corporate Communications and Office of Emergency Management.


John Chapman is a Community Planner with the District of Squamish. He has a particular interest in emergency preparedness and community resilience. He can be reached on twitter @john_chappy and by e-mail at

Melissa Sutherland is a Public Engagement Specialist with the City of Vancouver. She advises departments across the City on their research needs. Melissa also manages the City of Vancouver’s Talk  Vancouver panel.

Daniel Stevens has been the Director of Emergency Management with the City since 2012, and has been with  Vancouver’s  Office  of  Emergency  Management since 2006.