Monthly Archives: September 2012

WRHSAC Workshop Summary and Feedback Form

The Massachusetts Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council, or WRHSAC, sponsored a social media training event Friday, September 21, 2012 in Northampton, MA. Below is a summary of the event, including Tweets from the  tag #WMASMEM.  If you attended please be sure to fill in the comment form at the end of this post.

The agenda was packed with information from the perspective of the community members themselves, and facilitators Jeff Phillips and Kim Stephens led the way. We started the day with a “check-in” regarding what attendees thought was the biggest obstacle for their use of social media. Each table reported one item they felt was the biggest impediment. They came up with the list below, and interestingly, 3 different groups thought “time” or resources was the biggest issue.

  • comfort using tools- legality (how far does it go? where does it end)
  • governance
  • SOPs (message control, etc)
  • time to keep it updated – keeping current & fresh (resources)
  • social media policies are restrictive
  • clarity and consistency – message control
  • ensuring consumers/citizens are aware
  •  time to do it all
  • time (how do we control the incoming traffic – to be responsive)
  • crowdsourcing data, finding out what’s out there
  • not all people have access to tools but would like to see what’s on the social platforms
  • how do people differentiate their between their various roles in their lives (e.g. selectman and employee).

The attendees were reminded that the facilitators had established a training blog titled “Western Mass SMEM.”  This blog site has many resources for the participants to use well after the day of the workshop, including modules on specific topics as well as “lay-of-the-land” maps.

The maps have links to all the social media sites the facilitators could find by emergency service organizations in the Western Region including public health, NWS, law enforcement, emergency management and city government. There are two categories of  maps, county  versus State and Regional. The State and Regional maps include applicable agencies such as MEMA. Why is doing a “lay-of-the-land” an important step? Read Module 18 for the details about why organizations should understand who else is Tweeting and posting.

Legality: What public organizations need to know.

The first presentation of the day was given by Linda Hamel, General Council for the state of Massachusetts, Information Technology Division. Her talk was titled Three aspects of Social Media Use for Public Sector Employees. This informative presentation had many great take-aways including: letting participants know that organizations have to be very careful about deleting people’s comments on government sponsored Facebook pages or blogs because of first amendment free speech protections; that staff should be informed about what behavior is expected on or off government social sites, such as on their personal Facebook page; and what kinds of behavior on social sites can lead to disciplinary actions.

Fire, Police and Emergency Managers Discuss Use of Social Media

The first panel of the day was quite lively and included Chief Wynn, Pittsfield Police Department; Bob Labrie, Goshen Fire; and Ryan Quimby, Town of East Longmeadow. They discussed their use of social media and told some great stories about how they use these tools to reach their communities before, during and after a crisis.


IMG_9051 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some interesting take-aways: FB can and has been used catch criminials; social networks can be used to inform the public very quickly of what is occurring–well before traditional media goes to press; by monitoring social sites organizations can determine what the public is saying about them–good or bad. Chief Wynn stated–the public is talking about your organization anyway, if you are also on social networks at least you are able to see it and respond. This seemed to resonate with participants.  Another kind of funny take away–cute pictures increase traffic to your site: people love babies and animals and especially baby animals!

One of the concerns from the audience was about rude comments on their organization’s page. Facilitator Kim Stephens mentioned the case study posted on the blog that discusses what can happen when people post irrational or inflammatory comments. That post can be found here: Module 10.

Question: How many minutes a day do you spend on posting to your Facebook page? Answer from Bob Labrie–30 minutes or so, which includes crafting the post.

Social Media for Professional Connections: #SMEMChat

Learning to use Twitter was part of the day’s activities and included a discussion on the use of the network to connect to other professionals.

With this idea in mind, the workshop attendees joined the #smemchat on Twitter, which takes place every Friday 1230 EST. The chats are often joined by emergency managers from all over the United States. Quite a few people were testing the water with this experience.

Some of the more experienced Twitter users in the crowd really dove into the chat discussion, which was about dealing with rumors on social platforms during a disaster event. See the storify of the chat here and a Tweetdoc version here. (Tweetdoc is document that brings together all the tweets from a particular event or search term.)

Most of the exercise involved just learning to use Twitter in a quickly moving environment, such as a chat. These chats make a good no-fail exercise each week. One of the things participants discussed afterwards was that it was “kind of hard” to keep up, illustrating the need for more practice.

Social Media and Public Health Communications

The public health session began with a video by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospitals. The 3 minute YouTube video is used to train employees about their social media policy.

Panelists included Sam Brody, Representative from Cooley Dickinson Hospital; and Steven Jay Cohen, also of Cooley Dickinson and John Jacob of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

John Jacob told the audience that DPH primarily uses a blog and a Twitter account to reach citizens, they currently do not have a Facebook page. The blog allows them to post stories and information in a more flexible format than the agency website. The blog also allows for interaction with the public via the comments section. See this module for more information about blogging: Module 19: Blogging for Public Health and Safety Organizations.

One interesting problem the private sector hospital representatives brought up was the issue they are encountering regarding  the balance between emergency information versus “brand” information. They are still considering whether or not they should they post from the same account or establish a new one just for emergency-type messages.

One great point made by Mr. Cohen was that the hospital has to be careful when repeating messages created by others or “ReTweeting.”  They want to ensure that message is verified information because the second they repeat it, it can be viewed as an endorsement of that content. Public sector organizations should also take this into consideration.


The participants learned how to use Twittter’s SMS texting capability, specifically the “fast follow” feature using 40404. More information about this capability can be found in Module 17. We learned that in order to follow someone (or an organization) via SMS on their smart or even “dumb” phone, users simply text to 40404 and then “Follow [username].” If you text the word “stop” to 40404 it turns off all text notifications. Users could also type “unfollow [username]” to remove the notifications from that specific person or organization.

Volunteers and Donations Management

The last panel of the day addressed how spontaneous volunteers and organizations use social media in a crisis. The panel included Morgan O’Neill of; Wendy DeShais, a volunteer from Monson, MA; and a member of the local media, Peter Chilton, the social media director for New England Public Radio, located on the UMass campus.

We began the session by viewing a Ted Talk that included Morgan O’Neill and her sister Caitria. In the talk they discuss how they organized volunteers in Monson  using both Facebook as well as “post-its” after the June 1, 2011 tornado event. Morgan elaborated on the talk by telling the story about how after posting a need on Facebook not only would the requested item show up–but often x10, requiring a quick retraction: “We no longer need freezers!”

Wendy pointed out the necessity of keeping up with all of volunteer activities–spontaneous or not.

Mr. Chilton addressed how improvements could be made between the media and officials involved in getting out emergency messages.

What Now?

Those of you that attended the workshop, and used some of these tools for the first time, might be wondering what you can do to keep up both your new-found skills as well as the connections you made during the day. We have several suggestions:

  1. Follow and friend each other’s new social presence(s) on both Facebook and Twitter.
  2.  Connect to the WRHSAC’s Facebook pages and Twitter accounts: the WRHSAC Facebook page (with the intended audience of first responders) and their Western Mass Ready Facebook Page. Also connect to the Western Mass SMEM page–which was created for attendees and regional constituents to use as a place to both try things out and share best practices.
  3. Connect to each other on Twitter via the #WMASMEM hashtag–maybe even pick a time to have your own regional chats. If you are still unsure about Twitter revisit  Module 11: Twitter Basics.
  4. Connect to other regional Twitter users that have been aggregated here:!/JSPhillips2/wrhsac/members. This Twitter List was created by Jeff Phillips and has 109 members including the new Twitter users from the workshop–Jeff was adding  new accounts as they were created.
  5. Practice!!!!!!

Thanks to everyone who participated and presented. It was a very successful day!


Module 21: Text Message Alerts and Warnings

SMS Parlament

Objective:  To provide an understanding of the various text message alert and warning tools available to public safety organizations and the pros and cons of their use.

The ability for public safety organizations to send people alerts, warnings, or even preparedness information to mobile devices has increasingly become a necessity, especially for communities that have large populations of citizens without “home-phones” such as those surrounding college campuses.  There are many pros and cons, however, and this post will explore some of the issues.

How does it work?  SMS stands for short message service. SMS is also often referred to as texting, sending text messages or text messaging. The” short”  part of SMS refers to the length–the maximum size of the message is limited to 160 characters, including spaces. (Twitter started as an SMS service, which is why the number of  characters is limited.) If an organization would like to start sending text messages, this is usually done via contracts with outside vendors.  There are several steps:

  1. An organization must first lease a short code–typically a 5-7 digit number;
  2. Once it is obtained then a set of keywords is identified so that users can text into the short-code to sign up;
  3. Once people have subscribed, an organization can send messages to the mobile service provider, which then sends the messages to a mobile aggregator;
  4. An SMS aggregator maintains direct connections to the major wireless carriers. They deliver their customers’ text messages, which they aggregate, through their gateways.
  5. An aggregator allows you to go to one place to connect to all of the wireless carriers. The mobile carriers then distribute the message to your subscribers. (Source: CDC SM Toolkit)

Why use SMS?

To reach a large audience: Below, this excerpt from a CDC publication which outlines who uses mobile technologies and texting, specifically. In general, the overall use of mobile technologies is on the rise:

  •  In 2010, 96% of U.S. adult population owns a mobile device (CTIA, 2010).
  • Text message volume continues to increase; in 2010, more than 2.1 trillion short text messages (SMS) were sent – up from 81 billion in 2005. CTIA, 2010).
  • 72% of cell phone owners use their phone to send or receive text messages (Smith, A., 2010).
  • Lower income teens (ages 12 – 17) are higher users of text messaging and the mobile internet than their more affluent counterparts. Of the teens without home internet access, 20% use their mobile devices to access the internet (Smith, A., 2010).
  • One third of Americans (35%) own smartphones. Groups that have higher than average adoption rates include those well educated and affluent, individuals under the age of 45 and African-Americans and Latinos.
  • The swift adoption of smartphones has lead to the increase of “cell mostly” internet users. Some 87% of smartphone owners access the internet or email on their device. (Smith, A., 2011) (Source: CDC SM Toolkit)

To Educate: The CDC describes how they use this type of communication tool to not only inform, but to potentially influence and/or change behavior. As an example, recent research has shown that sending people a daily text message to remind them to take medication dramatically increases the number of patients who stick to their prescription drug regimen. “Text messages and emerging technologies offer new opportunities to educate and engage patients so they can improve their health and ultimately rein in their health costs,” Kalee Foreman of OptumRx, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. (Source:

To Alert: SMS/text messaging systems have become are a major part of campus mass warning systems, which has also allowed for a good assessment of the tools. According to Campus Safety Magazine there are many “strengths” to using these tools. For one, most college students (and research shows people in general) pay attention to text messages they receive on their cell phones. Moreover, during a crisis when bandwidth is at a premium, SMS is a good choice because it uses much less than voice messages.


With every “pro,” there is usually a “con” with the biggest issue being the necessity for people to proactively subscribe. This mirrors the problems that have been encountered by communities who use Reverse 911-type systems that automatically calls every land line in the database. Users of that tool have seen a drop-off in the amount of people they are able to reach as more and more citizens rely on cellular service alone. The Denver Post recently investigated the issue:

“Reverse-dialing warning systems aren’t capable of sending alerts — calls, texts or e-mails — to cellphones unless a person registers the number with the county’s emergency management office. This has been slow to catch on across Colorado, even as more people cancel their land lines in favor of using mobile phones only.

One advantage to SMS, however, is that subscribing to a text message service is much simpler than the online-lengthy form required for registration to  reverse dialing systems.

Some other concerns about the technology include:

  • Messages may be considered spam, even if they are emergency alerts, by some communication companies and/or recipients (some cell service providers might even completely block message delivery–see this article: Is there a Gap in Your Mass Notification System Plan?)
  • Cost–quite a few of these services are not free;
  • If cellular service is disrupted, messages might not go out or delivery will be delayed;
  • Database management challenges exist;
  • Trunk capacity may slow message delivery;
  • If people have their cell phones off they will not receive the message (some services also send messages to email);
  • Most SMS text messages cannot be catered to a specific geo-graphic area;
  • Some smaller, regional carriers don’t have agreements with major carriers, which prevents the messages from being delivered.

Best Practices: If you do choose to use these tools there are some best practices that should be considered:

  • No-spamDon’t spam: Develop the credibility of the system and the institution by only using it when appropriate (overuse can lead to people unsubscribing); in other words don’t become “spammy.”
  • Ensure that it works: Test the system regularly
  • Educate: Let you community know you are using the system and educate them on how to sign up, and what they should expect from the solution; education should include information about applicable charges for receiving text messages.
  • Keep good records: A database of intended recipients can be broken down by distribution groups to increase delivery speed;
  • Choose vendors wisely: If using a third-party vendor, make sure they have made the appropriate arrangements with aggregators and cell carriers so their emergency messages won’t be delayed or blocked. Have the message originate from the institution rather than a vendor to increase the likelihood that the message will be prioritized correctly.
  • Include Opt Out: Make sure people know how they can stop receiving messages.
  • Use abbreviations sparingly: Believe it or not, not everyone knows what EOC stands for. (Source: Campus Safety Magazine)


Who are some of those third party vendors? There are many different service providers and local governments and public health organizations should do their homework before choosing one. Increasingly these providers include the ability to post messages across many different platforms include social media. Below is a list and description of a few of the most well known.

Code Red–This service delivers both voice and text messages, and is used by quite a few educational institutions.   Code Red’s literature also states that they do have arrangement with aggregators and cell carriers so emergency messages won’t be delayed or blocked. This service is not free.

BlackBoard Connect: According to their website this service allows “users to send thousands of messages in minutes” and requires no additional hardware. Their Blackboard Connect 5 product allows users to send messages – via voice, email, SMS, social media, and other channels. This service is not free.

Image representing Nixle as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Nixle: This service emphasizes their security features as well as the ability for local government public safety personnel to send out  geographically-targeted information. Subscribers can receive this information via SMS text, email or on the website.

The Nixle software also includes the ability to differentiate messaging. Pre-determined/authorized accounts can send  “Alert” messages; or other designated users can send public safety, health, weather, or traffic Advisory-type messages. Nixle can also cross-post these messages to social platforms. This service is currently free for government entities.


It is possible the CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) will address some of the concerns about the need for subscriptions for cell phone users.  CMAS, however, will not be widely available until next year. Of note, the the messages will have a 90 character limit, so it is probable that any alert would need to be followed up with additional information and/or further protective action instructions on a different platform.

From FEMA’s blog:

CMAS allows public safety authorities to use FEMA’s IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks (IPAWS-OPEN) to send geographically targeted, text-like Wireless Emergency Alerts to the public. WEAs will relay Presidential, AMBER, and Imminent Threat alerts to mobile phones using cell broadcast technology that will not get backlogged during times of emergency when wireless voice and data services are highly congested.

CMAS/WEA complements the existing Emergency Alert System (EAS) which sends warnings to television and radio via broadcast, cable, satellite, and wireline communications pathways.

WEA are not the same as text messages. WEA will not have to be opened like SMS text messages, but will “pop up” on the device’s screen.  A key differentiator between the CMAS/WEA capability and the existing Short Message Service Point-to-Point (SMS-PP)–a one-to-one or one-to-few alerting service–is that WEA uses SMS-Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB), a one-to-many service, which simultaneously delivers messages to multiple recipients in a specified area. By using SMS-CB as the delivery technology service, WEAs avoid the congestion issues currently experienced by traditional SMS-PP alerting services, which translates into faster and more comprehensive delivery of messages during times of emergency. (Source: FEMA)


There are many tools and services available for public safety and health organizations to communicate with the public. Determining which one(s) to use should be based on your resources and the needs of your community. Increasingly, one communications platform will not reach everyone, therefore, flexibility is a necessity.

Module 20: Who can help your organization with social media?

Objective: To understand how community members, fluent in social media, can assistant response personnel in all social media activities in a volunteer capacity.

Listen, Understand, Act

Listen, Understand, Act (Photo credit: highersights)

Force Multipliers: Social Media Monitoring

Monitoring social media and responding to requests for information that come from social platforms can become cumbersome and is most certainly labor intensive. With success, meaning a lot of followers, also comes added responsibility. QPS Media in Australia, for example, received hundreds of comments on their Facebook page, everydayduring a major flooding/disaster event. One Facebook post received 1200 comments alone.  Reading and responding to all of those comments can become overwhelming.

Emergency management organizations, both government and non-governmental alike, are starting to understand how enormous this task could be in a crisis and are looking to innovative solutions to solve the problem. One innovation includes the creation of “Virtual Operations Support Teams” or “VOST” to aid their social media efforts. [VOST is a specific name but these types of teams have also been called a “Stand by Crisis Task Force” or a “Twitter Strike Team”]. The VOST can be integrated into Emergency Management operations to help with a variety of tasks depending on the needs and desires or the organization. The tasks the team could be given could include:

  • establishing and monitoring social media communications,
  • helping to manage communication channels with the public, and
  • handling matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers.

In other words, a VOST can be enlisted to extend communication capacities.

What organizations are using volunteers in this capacity? Many organizations have either developed, or are in the initial stages of employing, this concept:

  • American Red Cross
  • United Nations
  • US National Fire Service
  • Los Ranchos, New Mexico Office of Emergency Management
  • Philadelphia Office of Public Health (under development)
  • New York City Office of Public Health (under development)
  • Clark Regional (Washington State) Emergency Services Agency

Researchers at the University of Colorado recently conducted a study of this concept and documented their findings in a paper titled “Trial by Fire” cited below.  They followed the use of a VOST by Kris Ericksen, the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Portland Team (a Type I Incident Management team) which was called to the Shadow Lake Fire on August 31, 2011.  The case study does the following:

“…outline[s] the tools and processes used by this virtual team to coordinate their activities, monitor social media communication and to establish communications with the public around the event. …discuss[es] the potential merits and limitations of implementing a team of trusted volunteers and explore how this idea could be incorporated into emergency management organizations.”

The study describes the tasks the team was asked to accomplish:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and report back what you are seeing;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public;
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the NIMO team and its efforts through social media;
  • Push out key message each day (via personal and official Twitter accounts)
  • Post and tweet messages from private accounts with information from @ORfireInfo accounts;
  • Represent the citizen’s perspective;
  • Compile media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Document the social media conversation – especially if something big happens;
  • Take this opportunity to learn new tools and try new things;
  • Document the experience of participating as a VOST member.

According to the study, “…the team reported using a range of tools to ‘watch and listen’ while at the same time trying to maintain an archive. Any information they found was added to the Keepstream file and was referenced like a virtual file cabinet by the NIMO team.” Regarding the reporting structure, all communication went directly to Ms. Ericksen in the event “..they identified any negative coverage, irritated stakeholder groups, or citizen concerns that required her attention.”

The team also directly communicated with the public through multiple social media platforms, where they correctly characterized their group effort as “volunteer” designed to amplify the message of the official response organization. Twitter, Facebook and a blog were used and integrated—repeating posts from each platform based on the official information. This ultimately increases the opportunity for more people to view the content. (See Module 19--that blog and social media effort was also the product of a VOST deployment.)

Another example: CERT

Another example of this type of assistance is from Anaheim, California. CERT volunteers already serve in a community outreach capacity by supplementing staff in the “hotline room” by answer questions on the phone. Their concept is to extend these responsibilities to social networks. The social media monitoring volunteers in Anaheim will be used primarily to keep track of comments and social data posted to the communities’ social platforms. They will also be allowed to retweet (repeat a message on twitter) anything that has already been put out by the Public Information Officer (PIO).

Developing the team will be done by first, surveying CERT members to gage interest, and then once team members are identified, they will be provided training. The training will include: hot-line room standard operating procedures; reporting protocols; rules regarding what they can and cannot say; and, potentially, will require participation in a monthly twitter chat. Volunteers will also be taught “how” to monitor including which search terms to use etc., as well as which platforms to monitor. However, volunteers will be given some latitude to keep track of all the platforms they “see fit”.  The training currently does not include a module on how to verify information, however, that is a consideration for future efforts.

Linking to Operations

Specifically, regarding reporting protocols and procedures, pertinent information the monitoring team discovers will loop back into the EOC planning and operations section via the PIO (see the graphic above). Any life threatening information will be sent directly to the dispatcher and non-life threatening info will get written down on paper or in an email and is sent to the PIO to review and decide which section it should go to. Currently, CERT “digital volunteers” do not have access to WebEOC, but they have discussed granting limited access so that they can input the information directly. (The CERT coordinator supplied the graphic.) She states: “Depending upon the platform, some steps may require modification.  For example individual [citizens] may post to YouTube which may require a response post or a comment directing individuals to a website or blog with more information. “

There is a lot of information on these concepts. Start with the citations below.

[1]St. Denis, et al “Trial by Fire: The Deployment of Digital Volunteers in the Shadow Lake Fire” March 2012, Proceeding from ISCRAM Conference.

[2] Borregio, Anne Marie, “American Red Cross and Dell Launch First of its kind Digital Operations Center” March 2012>.

[3] Sutter, John “Ushahidi: How to Crowdmap a disaster”  CNN, October, 2011.

[4] CRESA Emergency Management, “Wanna Be Part of a Twitter Strike Team?” March, 2012

Module 19: Blogging for Public Health and Safety Organizations


Objective: In this post you will learn why your organization might consider using a blog and learn how to determine which platform is the best choice.

Blog Machine

Blog Machine (Photo credit: digitalrob70)

What is a Blog?

The CDC provides this definition in their Social Media Toolkit:

Blogs, or web logs, are regularly updated online journals that almost anyone with an internet connection can use. Some blogs target a small audience, while others boast a readership comparable to national newspapers.

Blogging has been around for a long time, relatively speaking in the social media world. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, YouTube etc. some people thought blogging would fade away, however, other social networks have actually increased the amount of traffic to blogs, not vice-versa. Why?  Blogs are part of the social ecosystem. If your organization has an “integrated social ecosystem” it means that all of the content posted on each platform points to and supports the other. For example, if you write a blog post, some people may find the article by clicking a link you provided in a Tweet–in turn, other people may realize you have a Twitter account by seeing the Twitter feed on your blog; folks found your blog by clicking on a link from your website; they found the website by watching a video you produced on YouTube.

Does all of this seem a bit redundant? Couldn’t you simply post everything to one platform? We are not suggesting that you have to participate on each of these social sites, however, each one does bring unique ways to provide information to your community and increase the chance that people who need the content will see it. Nonetheless, deciding to blog should start, at a minimum, by answering these three questions:

  1. What are the benefits to our organization for using this form of outreach?
  2. Do we have clear goals and objectives for this tool?
  3. Do we have the resources to support the use of this platform–e.g. who will write the content?

Top Five Reasons to use a Blog

Standing up a blog site to disseminate public health and safety information can provide several distinct benefits:

  1. A blog provides a place to discuss a topic that may be too complex for other channels and to give your topic or program a more personal and engaging presence than a website allows. (Source CDC)
  2. Since comments can be reviewed before being posted it can be considered a less risky platform;
  3. You can choose a free blog site with easy-to-use/easy-to-learn user interfaces (free attractive themes as well) making them a good alternative to expensive websites (see the Western Massachusetts Disaster Animal Response Coalition as an example–their site was built using WordPress).
  4. It is easier to update a blog versus a website–which is an important consideration for crisis communications. Furthermore, some blogging platforms (such as are mobile ready, meaning you can  post from your iPad or iPhone, Android or Blackberry.  The blog also looks quite nice to viewers via these same devices.
  5.  Analytics are included–allowing you to understand if you are reaching your audience.

Public Safety Example

This blog “Wild Land Fires” was stood up by the USDA Forest Service  and cooperating agencies during the summer of 2012 to provide information from the incident managers in charge of each fire in the region, which includes South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas. The site also included statewide and region-wide content. The purpose of the blog was to offer citizens a comprehensive, interagency look at wildland fires.


The content included maps (an example from the site has been embedded on the right), updates, and links for detailed information about individual fires. Each listed state had at least one active fire, most had more than three.  For example, by clicking on South Dakota, the user could choose between the White Draw Fire, the Highlands Fire or the Crow Peak Fire.

This was a bit of an experiment by all involved since no interagency “social networking/collaborative” project of this nature had been tried before. I interviewed the project lead, Kris Ericksen, PIO for the Portland National Incident Management Team (a full time Incident Management Team), and she provided some great insights to how and why they decided to use these tools. She indicated that the blog, as well as all of the associated social media sites (Google+, a Twitter account, as well as a Facebook page) were stood up for the response because it is now an expectation of the citizen. She said “We are living in a refresh button world. People expect you to be listening and to answer their questions.”  She acknowledged that this is difficult for some public safety professionals who are used to message control and sometimes fear what the public might say.

Why did they use a blog and other social sites when they already had inciweb? Answer, because these sites allow you to post and host things that inciweb cannot, for example, high resolution maps and podcasts, to name two. Furthermore, inciweb does not have a feedback mechanism–by using social media, you are building interactions, and hopefully, trust and credibility, with the community.

There were a few limitations, however, with the free blog site. For one, although the maps could be loaded and viewed, the ability to provide interactive maps was restricted with the .com versus the non-free .org version. They also learned from this effort about best practices regarding how to organize the blog and what templates to choose (there were some complaints, for example, about the black background).

Of note, they did place the blog in a social ecosystem–as mentioned, all of the other social sites they were using were linked to the blog (which they highlight on the “Welcome” landing page) and when a new blog post went up it was Tweeted out, linked to on Google+ and mentioned on Facebook.

What platform is best?

There are several blogging platforms:

The two I would recommend are: ( a Google product) or (the site you are currently viewing is on Each one has pros and cons, but the technology is quite similar. Ultimately it is your organization decision, but (a federal site) recommends following these guidelines when choosing a tool:

  • What are your overall goals, budget, and technical capabilities?
  • Decide whether a particular tool is affordable, fits into your current infrastructure, and gives you what you need to meet the goals of your blog.
  • Do you need a hosted or stand-alone blog?
    • Hosted blog: a company provides the space to store (host) your blog. Blog hosting may be free or fee-based, and each company may offer a different array of services.
    • Stand-alone blog: you host your blog on your own network. It allows great freedom to customize your blog, and gives you full control of the design; however, it is more complicated and costly than a hosted blog.
  • Will your blog be written by one person, or multiple authors?
    • Multiple-author blogging might have different requirements, such as separate accounts for each blogger.
  • Where will you post?( e.g. Do you need a tool that allows remote posting, from mobile devices, etc.?)
  • Does the tool comply with government policy–such as Section 508 accessibility guidelines, to ensure it’s accessible for people with disabilities or  security policy–to ensure it’s in a securely hosted environment?


  • Follow this link to see features of WordPress: “Getting Started Support.”
  • The video below, How to start a site, gives you a quick overview their platform:

More resources:

Module 18: The “Lay-of-the-Land”

English: Nashville, TN, May 5, 2010 -- Nashvil...

English: Nashville, TN, May 5, 2010 — Nashville resident and disaster survivor Amy Frogge uses social media to display pictures that document the flood and damage to her home in Davidson County. FEMA is responding to the severe storms and flooding that damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in May 2010 across Tennessee. David Fine/FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine a disaster has just struck your region, maybe it is a wildfire that has crossed several fire districts, a tornado that has touched down in several communities, or a hurricane that has caused extensive flooding; whatever the situation, organizations and citizens across the impacted area will be using social media to talk about the event and to look for information.

From the perspective of your response organization, you can obtain valuable content from response partners via social media that you would not be able to determine otherwise, even by using WebEOC.  It is worth noting, for example, that most volunteer organizations (with the potential exception of the American Red Cross) do not have access to WebEOC in order to update their activities. Increasingly, these same volunteer groups as well as spontaneous volunteers,  are posting what they are doing on their Facebook page and Twitter accounts.


In order to take advantage, or even make sense of content posted on social platforms, you have to find it first.  It is ALWAYS best to determine the “players” before a disaster occurs: you would not want to be exchanging contact information with other responders after a crisis–that same principal applies to social media usage. This process, finding who is using what social platform, is something we call determining the “lay-of-the-land.” By completing a lay-of-the-land you will have a much better picture of who can help spread your message, understand and identify potential collaborators, and understand who might provide content on these platforms  during a crisis–who you should be “listening” to.

There are two overarching steps–#1 find social accounts by using the search process we have outlined below and then #2, share your curated list with other response partners so that they are not re-creating the wheel.

Step 1: Find Local Social Media Accounts

Where to look?  For the Western Homeland Security Region we have started building a “Lay-of-the-Land” already. Look above at the tabs “Web-Based Communications by County” as well as the tab State and Regional Social Media links. The list of hyperlinks can be copied and pasted for your own use, or you can copy and paste from this google doc (anyone with the link can view the Google doc but cannnot edit it. If you have an addition or deletion please let us know in the comments section below.) These lists contain every social site we could find that relate to the 10 homeland security disciplines. We have even provided a link to the main website of each community or city.  We will be adding more news organizations and volunteer groups as the information becomes available.

How did we find this information? There are numerous ways to find who’s using social media in your community:

  • Start with websites: Are there any social symbols on the city’s or organization’s landing page?  Check each agency’s page because, for example, the Fire Service might have a Facebook, Twitter and YouTube “connect” button, but the city’s homepage might not.
  • Visit Facebook pages of similar organizations and agencies:  once you find one agency, or an organization such as the Humane Society or the local hospital, select “See All Likes” (provided they have enabled this feature). Agencies and organizations will often “Like” each other, finding one can lead to similar groups.
  • Do a search in Facebook: this is especially useful after a disaster event because volunteer groups often form  (e.g. Monson’s Street Angels) and event-specific pages are also stood up. I often use the town’s name in the search, or the name of the event.
    • Activity–search the term “Hurricane Isaac” in Facebook. What did you find?

There are many ways to search Twitter, specifically:

  • Find the popular hashtags used in your community.  In Western Massachusetts the tag most often cited is #WesternMA–especially for general information (currently there are several politicians including that tag in their tweets). Once you find the hashtag it is easy to see the most active participants.How do you find popular tags? There’s an App for that!
  •  Go to the Twitter page of an organization or person you trust, choose “Lists” and look for lists that apply to your organization. FEMA, for example has a list titled “Local Emergency Management Agencies
  • Look at  MEMA’s Twitter page, who do they follow that you should consider following as well? Check other organizations or trusted sources to find who they are following.

 Step 2: Share the information

Make your “Lay-of-the-land” accessible in an easy-to-view format for others to see and use, such as the maps we included in the blog. Or at a minimum, post the content in a Google Doc and invite other response organizations to the document. You can also create your own Twitter lists.

If you want to formalize this process during an activation, you can develop a Modified Social Media Communications List (ICS 205A). (The hyperlinked example can be copied for your own use. This document cannot be edited, but your copied version can–simply choose “File”, “Make a Copy”). The ICS form 205A was developed in order to record methods of contact for incident personnel. We have modified this form in order to record all responding organizations (including volunteer) social media pages and accounts.  This form can function as an incident social media directory.

Good Luck! If you have any questions or comments please let us know. 

Case Study: Response Message Coordination

This post was originally posted on on January 4, 2012. Reposted with permission.

The Los Angeles area arson fires were an unwelcome addition to the 2011 holiday  season.  Although I’m sure each of the agencies involved in the Joint Task Force including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and members of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will be examining their response effort in detail, today I am gleaning some lessons learned with regard to the established Joint Information System, and in particular, how they handled social media during the event. Captain Mike Parker, PIO with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, was gracious enough to share his insights so that other agencies across the country may learn from their experience.

The absolutely most interesting aspect of this Joint Information Center public information campaign is how they not only repeated the same message through each agency’s own outreach platforms–websites, nixle accounts, facebook pages and twitter feeds– but how they combined into one voice via the name “Arson Watch LA”. A Facebook page with that name was established and a twitter account @ArsonwatchLA was created with the blessing and contribution from each of the Joint Task Force member agencies.

The public did respond very favorably to this outreach strategy. Within the first 36 hours of establishing the new name they had over 1000 fans of their Facebook page with over 3000 page views. The twitter account had similar success with 1500 followers in the first 36 hours and, according to tweetreach, they reached over 29,000 people via 50 tweets. Not only did they receive lots of press coverage for the effort, but there was a citizen outpouring of gratitude once the danger seemed to have passed.

What did it take to pull this off? Captain Parker stated in my interview with him that the effort to set up a Facebook page and a twitter account took only a matter of minutes, but the system and approval processes that made that happen is where the story lies. Based on his experience, he has shared these lessons:

1. Put systems in place for a Joint Command/multi-agency social media presence before an event. Although this seems like an obvious statement, it isn’t necessarily an easy task to get many different agencies to agree to be lumped together under a joint account. Why? Agencies work hard to establish trust with their constituents and audiences, particularly on social media platforms, so there could be fear that joining under one name would diminish not only their presence but their ability to highlight their contribution to the response effort. These concerns can be ameliorated beforehand if they are understood and addressed. It is also important for all the agencies involved to understand the potential rewards and benefits of working under one name.

2.  Establish joint accounts before an event occurs. Deciding the Task Force would work under one name was done fairly quickly, choosing the name took a little bit of time. This is the kind of decision that could be done in advance. Furthermore, if you use these accounts each time for similar events,  then public familiarity with them will rise.

3. When working with multiple agencies, timeliness of information dissemination could be slow. After the event had worn on for several days the number of people in the message approval process began to grow. How can large organizations involved in a joint command make nimble decisions regarding what should be put in public messages? Short and sweet seemed to be the best answer. Since twitter only allows for 140 characters, this helped those involved tailor short, simple, factual statements that could be readily approved by all those involved. Forget word-smithing: stick to the facts and get the info out-the-door. Another great point made by Captain Parker was that trust in the PIOs is essential. If the PIO is also a command officer or someone who is fairly high-ranking, this reduces the length of the chain of command these messages have to wind their way through.

4. Listen. Listen. Listen. One of the more interesting lessons I heard the Captain describe was how they used their social media presence to gauge public sentiment and information needs. Despite a little media hype about the Task Force getting tips about the arsonist via these platforms, the most important lesson was that by using these open forums the public was able to ask very important questions, such as “What can I do or should I be doing to protect myself?” The PIOs then tailored their public information campaign to address these concerns and even posted precautionary protective measures prominently on their Facebook “info” tab.

I asked the Captain how the PIOs monitoring the social media platforms handled comments and he stated something I have also found to be the case: the public will answer each other’s questions, often before you even have a chance to respond. Regarding their interagency cooperation, there was never an issue regarding the ability of whomever was monitoring the page to answer comments nor was there a need for pre-approval from the other Task Force member agencies for these answers.

5. Ignore stupid comments: The crowd will not only answer questions but will also shout down people who make really stupid or insulting comments and, as Captain Parker stated, this allows for the government agency to simply ignore this kind of behavior. However, it is still prudent to have a take-down policy stated on your “info” tab that describes how comments will be handled if they do cross the line.

6. Be prepared to staff 24/7. When planning for a Joint Command Multi-Agency social media presence, include staffing measures for 24/7. Parker said, ” at 3am there was nothing on the news, but Facebook and Twitter were a beehive of activity by the public and reporters. It never stopped 24/7.” Especially during this event where the arsonist struck at night, people were nervous and turned to social media to discuss what was happening, ask questions, and look for first-hand accounts of new fires.  The Task Force knew they had to be on those platforms in order to not only provide  information, but also to monitor the conversation. I’m sure seeing their presence provided a fair amount of comfort to those sitting at their computer worried about their family’s safety.

7. Learn the language of Social Media before an event. This seems like another obvious statement, but if your agency is not familiar with social media–learn it now. The last thing you want to be doing during an event is trying to figure out what a Retweet is or how to read a tweet.

I’d like to thank Captain Parker again for his contribution to this post.  Captain Parker wanted me to make clear his thanks “…to the great partners of the L.A. Arson Watch Task Force and the public we all serve.”

Module 17: Twitter’s SMS Text “40404” Capability

In August of 2010 Twitter announced via their blog, their fast follow (40404) service:

“We’ve always been big fans of trusty SMS messaging. In fact, sending a text was originally the only way users could tweet. This is why Tweets are 140 characters — they need to fit into a text message. We value SMS because it’s simple, instant and universal. Recently, we’ve added a few new features to make Twitter even more useful with SMS.

Fast Follow. Anyone in the US can receive Tweets on their phone even if they haven’t signed up for Twitter (emphasis added). This is a simple way for people to get information they care about in real-time. For example, let’s say you want to get Tweets from New York City’s office of emergency management (@NotifyNYC). Just text ‘follow NotifyNYC’to 40404 in the US. “

I love how in their announcement, they even mention emergency management.  They further explain how to use the service, step-by-step.

Tell Twitter to be quiet. Turn text messages on or off by sending ‘on’ or ‘off’ to Twitter. You can also go to our settings page if you want to turn off text message updates during a certain time period. (The pic on the right shows the message the user receives.)

Keep up with the latest Tweet. If you text ‘Get [username]’, that user’s most recent Tweet will be sent to your phone, even if you don’t follow them. There are a bunch of other fun commands you can use with Twitter on your phone.”

On Twitter’s “SMS Commands” Help Center page they further state: 

  • Using ON/OFF [username] from your phone only stops notifications coming to your mobile phone; you’ll still collect a person’s updates on the web since you’re still following them.
    • Use UNFOLLOW [username] to unfollow a user via SMS.
    • Use BLOCK [username] to block a user via SMS.
  • The following commands perform the same actions: FOLLOW = ON. And LEAVE = OFF.
  • Following someone from a phone for the first time will also cause you to follow them on the web.
  • You don’t have to use ON/OFF [username] from your phone, you can also set individual notifications from a person’s profile page on the web, or check your following page and manage all phone notification settings there.

Who uses this?

FEMA really likes this functionality and mentions it often in their communications with impacted communities. For example, in the aftermath of the tornadoes in Alabama in April of 2011, they explain this capability in their blog:

“People can also receive Twitter updates via text message from their respective emergency management agencies. You don’t need your own Twitter account to receive these updates, but keep in mind that standard text messaging rates apply:

  • For the Alabama Emergency Management Agency Twitter updates text follow AlabamaEMA to 40404 (this is Twitter’s text message number).
  • For the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Twitter updates text follow MSEMA to 40404
  • For the Georgia Emergency Management Agency Twitter updates text follow GeorgiaEMA to 40404
  • For FEMA Twitter updates text follow FEMA to 40404.”

Educating Your Community

Telling people how to fast follow you after a disaster is good, but educating them on how to use the service before something occurs is even better. For example, if you have a booth at the local county fair, pass out cards with information about how to follow via text message and sweeten the deal: send out a Tweet that includes information about where to receive a prize. You could even have people participate in a county fair scavenger hunt. Once you have them using the service you could let people know if a storm was approaching, for instance, or what streets to avoid when exiting the parking lot. Be sure to let them know how to STOP receiving messages!

Consider: This capability would be quite good for the deaf and hard of hearing community, who, for instance, would be unable to hear announcements over the loud-speaker at the fair.

Your Turn