Use of Social Media in Response to Hurricane Sandy in Maryland’s Emergency Management Organizations

By Irma Renda-Tanali, D.Sc., Professor and Program Director,  University of Maryland University College

The Event

Today, emergency managers are beginning to understand the importance of social media (SM) in communicating with citizens to be able to better prevent casualties and property loss during large scale emergencies. I conducted a research to investigate the patterns of SM usage during the Category 1 hurricane, Hurricane Sandy that impacted the East Coast of the United States fairly recently.

For two days from October 29 through October 30 2012, the U.S. East Coast was severely hampered by a Category 1 hurricane, Hurricane Sandy, which killed more than 200 in 7 countries, including 132 on the U.S. mainland, caused over 8.51 million power outages in 16 states and Washington, D.C. including New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Virginia, and Maryland, and flooded entire coastlines in the New Jersey area and parts of New York City (Seccombe, 2012). The actual losses are estimated to be $71 billion for the State of New York and New Jersey, including $9 billion in New York for preventive work, $360 million in Connecticut, and the insured losses are estimated to be $16 billion to $22 billion. (Newman, 2012).

Hurricane Sandy incident is remarkable in that it was a powerful hurricane that occurred very close to the U.S. Presidential elections, so it was hyped with huge media coverage before, during, and in its aftermath. Once it started pounding the East Coast, many people who still had power followed the events as they unfolded through major SM outlets such as Facebook and Twitter through the information posted by local, state, and federal agencies, and communicated with each other and shared status updates. Even if the power went out, many people were still able to tweet, and/or send messages via Facebook to loved ones to say they were OK. According to Ngak (2012) there were nearly 3.5 million tweets with the hashtag #sandy in the last 24 hours during the hurricane.

Social Media and Crisis Communication

Let’s do a quick review of SM and latest usage statistics:

Yagmurlu (2013) describes Social Media or Web 2.0 as the means of interaction among organizations and people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. SM includes Micro Blogging Services, the most commonly used application being Twitter; Social Networking Sites, most common ones in the order of popularity being Facebook and then Google+; Professional Networking sites like LinkedIn; Video, Photo, Music, Location Sharing sites such as Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, Foursquare and Yelp. Others are Blogs and Wikis, websites that individuals or groups create and exchange information.

A cursory search on the Internet about the usage statistics of these sites as of February 2014, indicated that Facebook is the biggest SM channel that has the largest number of active users,1.3 billion worldwide; Google+ has 1 billion users; Twitter 645 million; LinkedIn 277 million; Instagram 150 million; and Pinterest has 70 million active users. The number of individual YouTube viewers reached 3 billion!

In today’s modern society, there are many people, including myself, who wake up and get their first sip of coffee or tea while getting their first news of the day from online news sources including social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook.

As I wrote for an earlier edition in the HazNet (see Renda-Tanali, 2012), anywhere across the populated world, wide scale emergencies and disasters require communication with the public for the purposes of informing them of the immediate and anticipated dangers of the situation, the likely causes, and the actions to be taken. Citizens need to alter and adapt their behavior to keep themselves and their property out of harm’s way. Since it is the norm that local response agencies are the first responders who arrive at the scene, along with those citizens who are directly impacted, they hold the critical first hand information regarding the emergency situation. In the aforementioned paper I had covered some examples about the benefits of SM in large scale emergencies (Bruns, Burgess, Crawford, and Shaw, 2012 study crisis communications on Twitter during Queensland Floods; Crowe, 2010; Heverin, 2010; Howard, 2012; Lacey-Hall, 2011; Palen, 2008; Sutton, Palen, and Shklovski, 2008; Song and Yan, 2012; Tobias, 2012; Tyshchuk, et al. 2012; Ushahidi; and Vieweg et al. 2010)

Up until the past several years, the rest of the public used to get their information about a crisis only through broadcast media such as television, radio, or newspapers. It no longer holds true, since many of the disaster events evolve quickly by transforming into either better or worse or complex situations where the time lag between the media reports and the delivery would make the news report obsolete and irrelevant. A study conducted by the American Red Cross concluded that about 63% of the population representing the U.S. population turned to online news to get information about an emergency such as a power outage, severe weather, flash flood, hurricane, earthquake and tornado (American Red Cross, 2011).

People do not necessarily disregard the traditional media outlets such as TV news and local radio stations in informing themselves about emergencies, since 90% of the general population still reportedly turn to TVs and 73% to local radio according to the same study (note that the data are not mutually exclusive). The findings imply that people augment what they learn from the broadcast media with social media. Increasingly, citizens no longer rely solely on broadcast media since the media can, more often than not, use repeated and striking imagery to sensationalize the news out of interest for high viewer ratings. This usually comes at the expense of more relevant risk communication by traditional media (Latonero & Shklovski, 2011).

With the advances of telecommunication and wireless technologies, the form of social interaction among citizens have changed and evolved significantly. Instead of waiting for breaking news or public announcements, people can now gather virtually from any location exchanging knowledge regarding a potential disaster in such a way that survival rates or evacuation efficiency could be improved.

Findings

During the course of Sandy, I was actively monitoring Facebook and Twitter for Sandy related updates both from local friends and from the agencies and organizations responsible for emergency response.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was immediately active via Twitter with frequent updates about the impacted jurisdictions in Maryland, informing the public about how the State was responding to mitigate damage and restore critical functions. Hurricane Sandy was a test bed for effective SM usage for public agencies in delivering their messages across the public, and interactively communicating with the public and media for situation awareness, personal protection, and loss mitigation purposes.

I surveyed the use of SM during Hurricane Sandy by local jurisdictions including the State of Maryland Emergency Management Agency, (MEMA); Howard County Office of Emergency Management; Baltimore County Public Safety; and City of Annapolis Department of Transportation. The questionnaire was sent via an e-mail to those and several other counties, and the completed forms were analyzed with respect to the research questions. (See the survey questions at the end of the paper).

The study findings revealed that at the time of Sandy, MEMA and two of the three local agencies that responded to the surveys (namely Baltimore and Howard Counties) had designated personnel for SM and had pre-established protocols for SM use. At MEMA, there was one person who was in charge of disseminating the information and one other who was solely responsible for monitoring. The other local agencies had only one person each in charge but were augmented by staff members as the storm reached its peak. Facebook and Twitter were the most popular SM outlets and in conjunction with that, public notification systems such as Livestream and FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) were used. At the height of the storm, MEMA SM account received over 1,000 comments on their Facebook page which necessitated additional team members to help monitor and respond. The Annapolis City Dept. of Transportation due to their smaller size had limited SM presence, and citizens were not inclined to contact them through SM. Instead they used the phone call system that was already in place. Both the Governor and the Howard County Executive had a Twitter feed where they were able to post updates about the situation in their jurisdiction. Howard County posted situation updates every hour on the main county page, and other departmental webpages were updated once or twice a day. In Howard County, the rather more difficult inquiries coming from SM were vetted through the Public Information Officer (PIO) who would determine the best way to present the answer back to the original person who initiated it (See also Hughes and Palen, 2012). The following advantages and challenges about the use of SM from the point of local and state government agencies were identified through the findings of this micro study:

Advantages
    1. SM provides an additional outlet to reach the public and acts as a force multiplier through the public’s sharing and re-tweeting messages coming from them. Information can spread virally. SM is fluid or essentially an ongoing conversation, thus it allows for constant revision and updates. SM also allows the instantaneous transmission of information to a broad audience, especially important during emergent situations;

 

  • Removes barriers in communicating with the public. It allows them to take their message and information directly to the public, without the filter of the media;

 

  1. Allows efficiency in terms of reaching one key audience – the media – simultaneously. Disseminating a constant stream of updates drastically reduces the number of telephone inquiries from reporters.
  2. Increases situational awareness. Public may provide critical information that the agency may not be aware of. Also, for smaller agencies such as a city transportation agency, the major advantage appears to be receiving information; either about weather, or road conditions from state and federal agencies which they then would pass that info along to the public.
  3. Helps measure the overall effectiveness of messaging going out to the public. The fewer questions asked means the better the information going out is being received. 
  4. Helps determine what is relevant and what is not. Readily monitor to see what information was being shared with others from the local government’s (or response agency’s) sources.
Lessons Learned
  1. May not predict the volume of SM public inquiries coming in during the event. You can never be fully prepared for the public comments that might come in and how you are going to handle them.
  2. May not have the means to act. For example, one local agency attempted to set up a crowd sourcing map during the event, but learned that it may have been deployed too late causing it to not gain much traction. In the near future, they plan to set up a crowdsourcing tool or crowdmap earlier in the event for situational awareness. Currently they are in the process of doing more research and getting an understanding of best practices in crowdsourcing prior to moving forward.
  3. Internet may be down during a large scale emergency. Do not rely solely on SM. Have other public notification systems in place.
  4. Have a credible authority in place. From an information management perspective, the role of PIO is important to control the message and the times in which information is being shared as to not bombard the public all at once with non-emergency chatter. (See also Conneally, 2012).
  5. Make it part of the overall communications plan for the event.  Also have a departmental Facebook page that will come under the control during the actual emergency.
  6. Have policies established beforehand. SM does take manpower. One responding agency’s policy stated that they do not respond to SM inquiries, SM must be monitored for information about problems, public attitudes, and possible emergencies. As more citizens participate, additional human resources are required to monitor. They must strike a balance between how much information is enough. Some people welcome non-emergent posts about preparation, tips etc; others consider such posts a nuisance.
Conclusions and Implications for The Future

SM has become indispensable in emergency management as the results of this micro study revealed. With each event, over time, these agencies have started to integrate SM into their operational missions more and more. Hurricane Sandy was a great opportunity for them to put their SM procedures into practice. They saw a drastic increase in followership on their SM accounts during the event. They expect that people will recognize their SM accounts as a trusted and reliable source of information during an emergency or disaster in the future.

All respondents indicated that they plan to use SM much more during similar events, have a plan for scheduled outgoing info, and make the public aware of the SM sites available to them. Thus they started implementing changes based on those lessons learned.  They have more people and departments signed up and using SM. One agency official stated that Hurricane Sandy was the first time an organized communications plan was created for an event and it was so successful that it would be the standard that the PIO position will use for all future events. Another stated that even though they have been using SM during emergencies for several years with each major incident, SM becomes more central to their operation. The number of “followers” and “likes” continues to grow. The number of PIOs trained in their SM policies and procedures has also grown (See also Stephens, 2013). Currently, this is the most expedient way to provide information to the media and the citizenry. See also Stephens (2012) and Clouiter (2012) for more observations and recommendations from Hurricane Sandy as a complement to this paper).

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank UMUC’s Faculty Research Program administrators for making this research possible. This research was funded for the period of Spring 2013 semester. I would like to thank the following individuals who took time to respond to the survey questions:

  1. Elise Armacost, Director of Media and Communications, Baltimore County Public Safety
  2. Thomas McNeal, Emergency Management Specialist II, Howard County Office of Emergency Management
  3. Kasey Parr, Social Media Coordinator, Resiliency and Public Outreach Branch, Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA)
  4. Joshua D. Roeder, Brand Manager, Department of Transportation, City of Annapolis, Maryland

Also, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Mark Hubbard, J.D., Assistant Fire Chief, Baltimore County Fire Department & Director Baltimore County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, for his invaluable help in establishing the connections.

References

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Survey Questions
  1. At the time of Sandy, who was responsible for SM (SM) broadcast and monitoring? State the position and who this person reports to.
  2. What SM channels were used to communicate with affected citizens? (Twitter, Facebook, ?)
  3. Did your organization use Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)?
  4. How frequent were the updates to the public (from your organization)?
  5. Were there any protocols established in terms of handling inquiries to SM postings or comments? If so, were they handled ad hoc or were previously established?
  6. Were there times when the volume of (a) inquiries from public, or (b) situational information was overwhelming? If so, how did you handle it?
  7. What were the major advantages of the use of SM during Sandy? (considering the preparation, response, and recovery stages) (examples include increased situational awareness, better resource mobilization, coordination etc.)
  8. What were the main challenges of the use of SM? Impediments? Lessons learned? What changes did you implement to your SM use as a result of Sandy experience?
  9. Going forward, do you believe SM is more integrated to the operational missions of your organization after Hurricane Sandy experience? (e.g., newly established protocols/policies, more people signed up for future alerts, increased awareness etc.). If yes, please elaborate. If not, why?
Biosketch

Irmak Renda-Tanali is a Collegiate Professor and Program Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security degree specializations at the Graduate School of University of Maryland University College (UMUC), U.S.A. She teaches hazard, vulnerability, and risk assessment courses. Her research interests include disaster loss estimate studies, comparative emergency management, and social media use in disasters. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (JHSEM), a peer-reviewed leading journal in the area, published online and in print.

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