The emerging importance of social media during disaster

By: Mark Smith, NAIT Diploma Program

When you hear the words social media, you probably think of people at home socializing with friends and family on Facebook. But have you stopped to consider how powerful this emerging communication technique can be during a time of crisis or disaster?

Let’s examine some recent events in which social media became the number one resource for up-to-the-minute information and updates. On April 15, 2013, two pressure cookers exploded in the city of Boston, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. With the bombing suspects still on the run, people began looking for up-to-the-minute information, which the media outlets seemingly failed to deliver.

Twitter experienced a rush of information relayed by people in the affected areas—information that included text, pictures, and videos. Hundreds of new tweets were uploaded every few seconds, and people began relying on this new communication means as a source of real-time information. However, some inaccurate information began to circulate, and the Boston Police Department worked hard to push out only accurate information via Twitter and Facebook.  This event demonstrated that conventional news sources (TV, radio) were being replaced by social media—a simple but effective way of receiving up-to-the-minute information.

The second event in which social media played an important role was the Southern Alberta 2013 flooding. On June 20, 2013, the Town of High River experienced severe floods leading to evacuation of 15,000 residents. A communication blackout occurred in the town due to the flooding of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) and other municipal buildings. People turned to Twitter and Facebook for help and information. On behalf of High River RCMP, the Calgary Police Service tweeted for assistance from owners of boats or front loaders.  Within an hour of posting the call for assistance, the tweet had been shared 5,853 times and viewed by over 200,000 people. Members of nearby communities reported they were en route to help with the required equipment; numerous others volunteered to donate their boats to the rescue effort. The town of High River’s municipal department also turned to Twitter to update residents as many other communication lines were down.  Following the severe flooding in High River and surrounding towns, Calgary was the next city to fall victim to the rush of water.

Example of Twitter interactions.  Note the timing and number of retweets.

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Several emergency services in Calgary began tweeting updates via social media about the rapidly rising water levels and areas being evacuated. The City of Calgary and Calgary Police Service tweeted numerous maps of areas to be evacuated.  Within two days of the flooding, the Calgary Police Service had increased its Twitter following from 22,000 to 41,000.  People began to see the importance of this communication tool and took advantage of the city’s proactive approach in updating citizens (See examples of Facebook postings on next page).

One of the greatest features of social media during these types of events is the use of two-way information relay. The Calgary Police Service responded to hundreds of questions each day of the flooding, providing accurate and up-to-date information. Without this interaction, people may have been left confused and out-of-touch regarding developing circumstances.

The importance of social media cannot be overstated in today’s world of modern electronics and smartphones. All departments working in the disaster response should take a proactive approach when sharing information within the community. A social media communications policy should be available and ready to use in the event of a disaster. This proactive approach may save lives by providing accurate, up-to-date, timely information.

Example of Facebook postings:

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Mark has been a police officer for 10 years and currently employed with the Calgary Police Service (CPS).  He works in the CPS Strategic Communications department in charge of all social media interactions and was in the CPS Emergency Operations Centre during the 2013 flooding disaster. He witnessed first-hand the ease with which information can be relayed to the community from within the EOC by using social media. Working within the EOC, he was able to answer hundreds of questions received from the community and relay important changing circumstances. In this rapidly developing technological era, organizations must be proactive in utilizing these valuable social media tools when communicating.