Tag Archives: Emergency management

Content Strategies: What do I Post?

Post by: Kim Stephens

MC900442000It is easy for emergency managers to learn   social media in terms of the purely technical aspects–these platforms are pretty straightforward to use. However, one of the complaints I often hear, is “Now what?” Never before has the EM community been expected to communicate with the public on an almost daily basis. Once an emergency manager has a Twitter feed and a Facebook page they  understand that they have to post something so that it doesn’t look like a ghost town, but what?

Deciding what to post is not usually a problem during an emergency or a disaster situation, but social communication during the preparedness phase can be  challenging (even after an organization has determined they will invest time and resources to the effort). There are several inter-related issues to consider:

  1. Coordination with response partners. 
  2. Managing Public Expectations.
  3. Being creative enough to get the public’s attention.


In bigger communities it is increasingly common for almost every department or agency to have their own social media account.  The Department of Transportation is likely to be posting information road closures, traffic problems, and real-time road conditions during storms:

Police Departments tend to post content about  a wide range of activities from car crashes, to arrests, to the weather, as well as safety tips.

Fire Departments often provide updates about where they are responding, fire prevention tips, and general safety information as well.

So, where does that leave the Office of Emergency Management?  If all of the “sexy” up-to-the minute content is being reported by other agencies, what’s left to be said? Even once your agency decides what “lane” you should be posting in, it’s still possible that other city or county agencies will infringe on your territory. I have heard statements from some annoyed EMs such as: Why did the Fire Department post emergency preparedness content? That’s my job!

Solution:  In order to prevent “social-media envy” coordination and collaboration are key. The results of coordination could manifest in a city or county-wide written content strategy or simply in a verbal agreement regarding expectations. However, it is important to keep in mind that in the social media world, repetition of a message is NOT a bad thing. Your Tweets and Facebook updates  are never seen by everyone that follows you (see Jim Garrow’s article “The Demise of Facebook” in which he points out how few people actually do see what you are posting in their feed). Therefore, amplifying each other’s messages should be an overarching goal.  Here are two great examples of how this is done and communicated to the public in Baltimore.


I like the Tweet immediate above this paragraph because it also denotes  the type of content OEM will provide and when. I have heard concerns from emergency managers that once they start posting something, such as road closures or the weather, the public complains when they stop. One social media admin told me “The public now thinks I’m the weather man.”  However, continuing to post the same information daily can turn your feed into a very boring presence, ultimately reducing the amount of community engagement and interactions.

Solution: There are two ideas to consider:

  1. Pre-determine your thresholds for when your office will post emergency content (e.g. not every road closure, but only major incidents; not every fire warning, but only “red-flag” events; not every day it rains, but only severe weather ). You can publicize your intentions, however, by simply staying consist, the public will learn what to expect.
  2. Make it very well known, either via your website and/or Facebook page, the types of content your response partners are posting on social networks and where people can find that information. See the National Capital Region ”News Feeds” as an example of this.


Whether or not we want to admit it, the ”Be Ready” message gets very little traction when there isn’t an emergency.  Posting “Are you Prepared?” along with a few tips to your Facebook page does not mean your community is now more resilient.  In fact, they are probably ignoring this message altogether. Why? Frankly, it is boring.

What works? Storytelling. Stories  do many things: reshape knowledge into something meaningful; make people care, transcend one’s current environment; motivate; and give meaning, among other things.  In a blog post titled “The Importance of Storytelling in a Digital World”  the author discusses why TED Talks (the ultimate in digital storytelling) work. His logic applies to all digital communication:

I believe that storytelling is critical for public engagement on the web. Storytelling is a fundamentally human and social practice that allows individuals to connect through mutual cooperation and shared empathy. Storytelling inspires. Storytelling moves. It is a timeless practice that is the future for public engagement on the web.

A great example of storytelling in emergency management this year was from  ”Ready Houston” with the video: “Run. Hide. Fight,” embedded below. This 5 minute video holds viewers attention and has received over 1.8 million hits. The protective action measures the public should take during a shooting incident are demonstrated via the story of an attack in an office building. It was also successful because, unfortunately, it is all too relevant for the times we live in.

In contrast, the Ready Houston Facebook page has only 208 “likes” and features typical “Be Ready” content.


Solution: What are we trying to do here? We are trying to change behavior, which is not an easy task. Posting “Get Prepared–here’s your list” is probably not going to get anyone off the couch. A little more work might have to be involved. (For some reason I’m reminded of kid in the movie The Incredibles who’s asked “What are you waiting for?” and he says, “I don’t know. Something amazing, I guess.”) See the video clip below, just for grins.

What can you do? You don’t have to invest thousands in producing slick videos, but you can find a family in Home Depot shopping for winter supplies and take a pic. Ask them why they are getting prepared and post that. Or repeat news stories (even older ones) about someone that almost died in their car during a snowstorm because they didn’t have food or blankets in their car.

Storytelling can also be short and sweet. The Brimfield Police Department, whom I’ve written about previously, tells little stories that amuse, and get people to act and engage. Below are two posts from their Facebook page. The second one had almost 1500 “Likes” and many comments.



Let me know, are you ready to provide good content for 2013? What’s your plan to be amazing?

Bonus Video #1:
See this video which demonstrates how boring “data” can be enthralling when given meaning and context.

Bonus Video #2:

This post was also posted to iDisaster.wordpress.com.

See also: Module 9 Content Strategy Development 


Understanding VOSTs (Virtual Operations Support Teams) Hint: It’s All About Trust

Post by: Kim Stephens

voicebroadcast_graphic1Virtual Operations Support Team(s) or VOSTs is a concept created by Jeff Phillips and it was explained in detail in “Module 20: Who Can Help your organization with social media?” Jeff will be available on two conference calls for WRHSAC stakeholders: Thursday, December 13th at 11:00EST and again on Friday, December 14th at 1:00EST. If you would like information about how to dial in, just provide a comment to this post.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept please take a moment to review the Module 20 post. This current post is intended to provide even more context and examples of how VOSTs can be used by emergency management and public safety organizations. In general, it should be noted that VOSTs are typically deployed during a crisis or disaster event, and are generally not utilized for day-to-day preparedness communications.

VOST Defined

For just a bit of background, repeating content from Module 20, a VOST can be defined as a team that accomplishes some or all of the following:

  • Establishes a social media presence for an organization that previously did not use social networking tools to communicate with the public;
  • Monitors social media communications;
  • Handles matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers;
  • Follows social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicates issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective;
  • Identifies misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provides a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplifies the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or official social media accounts);
  • Compiles media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Document the social media conversations – especially if something big happens.

Trust and Trust: The Incident Management Team Model

There are two huge issues here: trust and trust. Who do you/would you trust to potentially be the voice of your organization and  to answer questions from the public?  Although this concept  may initially seem like a stretch–I would never allow someone else to be our voice!–there is a perfect example of how “outsourcing” can work: Incident Management Teams. When an IMT comes into your community you do trust them to do what is required/asked.  However, this delegation is not without strings attached–a  “Delegation of Authority” agreement is signed between the two parties detailing expectations. Below is an excerpt from a sample DoA:

You have full authority and responsibility for managing incident operations within the framework of legal statute, current policy, and the broad direction provided in both your verbal and written briefing materials. You are accountable to me. A formal evaluation of your performance will be conducted prior to your departure. This formal evaluation may be followed up within sixty days after your departure once the Agency has had the opportunity to review accountability, claims, financial matters, and other items, which require time to evaluate.

Although IMTs do include public information officers, it is not realistic to assume that communities will have the opportunity to tap an IMT every time there is an incident. Even small, localized events can stretch resources and limit your organization’s ability to “deal” with social media. Which is why you might want to consider using a VOST. However, an agreement, that borrows from the IMT or Mutual Aid agreements, could be utilized.

Who serves on the VOST?

Unlike IMTs, VOSTs are not pre-formed, nationally trained teams. One current misperception is that the “VOST”  will swoop into your community after a disaster.  Although there are people who work on VOSTs for specific communities, those folks have been pre-identified by the community or organization (I cannot emphasize that enough).

In other words, if you are interested in having a group (or even just one person) ready help with social media after a disaster, you have to take responsibility to foster that relationship and come to a terms of agreement before the disaster. Communities have done this in several different ways (explained in more detail below). Some have turned to CERT members (e.g. Anaheim California’s Office of Emergency Management); others have tapped  savvy social media community members (e.g. Cecil County, Maryland); and still others, including the NYC Public Health Department, have developed a VOST from within their agency by training their own employees–e.g. people willing to add additional duties for the opportunity to do something unique during a disaster response.

Like an IMT, VOST members can supplement resources and potentially even bring in a new set of skills.

VOST Models 

From my perspective, three models have emerged for the use and structure of VOSTs. Interestingly, the model or category an organization falls into seems to be a reflection of the both the level of trust with VOST members as well as the level of trust and knowledge/comfort with social media in general. The models I have identified are

  1. External Support (Amplify and Monitor Only)
  2. Hybrid Support (Amplify, Monitor, and Respond on behalf of the organization, but with specific limits)
  3. Internal/Embedded (Full range of social media duties and support)

1. External VOST Support:

Organizations that are both new to social media and the concept of a “VOST” might consider using support from team members in a more conservative manner. In this model the following support might be provided:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective);
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplify the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or established community VOST social accounts).

Team members could provide this support from afar–in fact, getting this type of assistance from folks outside of your community might be a great option since they would be out of the impacted area and would therefore have power in their home, or office, etc. Remember, monitoring social media does not have to happen in your EOC.

  • But who? Team members could be emergency managers from the other side of the state,  for instance.
  • But how? It is important to note that with any of these models, communication between the team members and the organization is vital for success. For example, if the team identifies a potential issue that needs to be addressed quickly (e.g. people posting angry comments on Mayor’s Facebook page about conditions in the shelters) they need assurance that the “customer” has seen their “red flag”.

2. Hybrid Support

In this model, the team does everything identified in the external support model, but also responds to questions from community members and posts content on behalf of the organization.  Unlike the model above, these individuals would be made administrators of those accounts. In this approach, however, there are specific limitations placed on the team members. For instance, they are allowed to post on behalf of the organization, but only information that has already been cleared by their organization’s PIO or posted on other official government accounts.

  • But who? I have seen this model used with CERT volunteers.
  • But how? Similar to the way 311 employees use pre-scripted responses to citizen’s questions, the social media volunteers are provided answers to frequently asked questions that they can type into the Facebook page, or post to the Twitter account. They would be responsible for monitoring these accounts and flagging any out-of-ordinary questions and obtaining quick answers: e.g. Is Elkton Road flooded?

3. Internal/Embedded

In this model, the VOST team leader  is given the full range of social media duties. This model is often utilized by small communities that do not have a full-time (or even part-time PIO) and the Agency’s staff person, responsible for social media communications, has many other duties during the response to a crisis or disaster.

  • But who? Often this type of arrangement is made with people very familiar with the organization and maybe even retired PIOs. The organization has an established, trusted relationship with the person or team members.
  • But how? In order to provide this type of support, it is often best to have the team, or a least the team leader, embedded at the Emergency Operations Center.

There are many examples of what VOST members have accomplished during the past two years. Click on the links below to see some of the social media pages they have built. Sorry for the extra-long post. I hope you have made it to the end! If you have any questions about this concept please let us know.








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. http://www.cs.colorado.edu/~palen/Home/Articles_by_Year_files/TrustedDigitalVolunteersStDenisHughesPalen.pdf.

[2] Borregio, Anne Marie, “American Red Cross and Dell Launch First of its kind Digital Operations Center” March 2012  http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.94aae335470e233f6cf911df43181aa0/?vgnextoid=1cc17852264e5310VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD>.

[3] Sutter, John “Ushahidi: How to Crowdmap a disaster”  CNN, October, 2011. http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/innovation/10/25/crowdmap.disaster.internet/index.html

[4] CRESA Emergency Management, “Wanna Be Part of a Twitter Strike Team?” March, 2012 http://cresa911.blogspot.com/2012/03/wanna-be-part-of-twitter-strike-team.html.

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. 

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

Module 14: Google Products for Archiving and Collaboration


Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Objective: To gain an understanding of the multitude of free Google products that can be used before, during and after a crisis to help first responders with necessary coordination and collaboration activities.

Google has many free services and products for first responders. Their “Crisis Response” page has a list, as well as descriptions and case studies of what they offer, so we won’t repeat that entire page here, but we will highlight two applications. Before you can use any of their products, though, it is necessary to obtain an account. If you are signing up for this service on your work computer then be sure to check with your IT department or web manager first. Having a Google account allows access to their full suite of services, as Google states:

A Google Account lets you access a variety of Google products such as Gmail, Google+, YouTube, and many more. A Google Account includes a Gmail address and a Google Profile…

You can create a Google Account by going to the Account Creation page, or by clicking the Create an account button on the top-right corner of any Google sign-in page. You can use your Google Account with all Google products, so once you create an account — regardless of whether you do it through the Account Creation page or through a specific product’s sign-in page — you can use that username and password with any Google product.

Two Useful Applications

Gmail. Gmail is a great email service that provides 10 GB of storage space, and it has a lot of extra handy features. We find Gmail most useful, however, in the context of using social media. How? Gmail makes archiving social media interactions a breeze. Most social networking services have settings (on Twitter see “How to Change Your Email Preferences“) that allow you to get notifications when activity occurs involving your account. On Twitter, just as an example, you can get emails when:

  • you are sent a direct message;
  • you are sent a reply or mention;
  • you are followed by someone new;
  • someone marks your Tweet as a favorite;
  • your tweets are retweeted.

Facebook has similar notifications. If your account gets busy after a crisis, for instance, these emails can start to really pile up and overwhelm your normal work account–so having an alternate email is a good idea. It is important to receive these social media notifications, though; by saving them, you are archiving your interactions.

Gmail’s filter option is a lifesaver. By creating a filter you can automatically send all emails within the specifications ( from “Facebook” in the example below) to a folder. You can do this in 5 steps:

  1. Click  the box next to the email you want to filter, once you select a message more options will appear at the top of the page.
  2. Select “More”
  3. Select “Filter Messages Like These” from the “More” pull down menu.  This brings up a box that has a few choices; you can add in more information, or just choose “Create filter with this search” in the bottom right corner.
  4. Once you choose to create the filter, you are taken to a box where you can choose what to do with those messages. You can choose to “Skip the Inbox” as well as to apply a label to that message and ALL messages like it (in this case all notifications from Facebook). 
  5. In order to view the filtered messages, simply click on the folder name to the left of the inbox.

Google Docs--If I could only choose one Google application, Google docs would be the one. Why? Coordinating volunteers is just one example of the tool’s utility. When multiple shelters are open, for instance, trying to determine who has signed up for what time, and where, can be an administrative nightmare. Volunteers can get very frustrated when they show up to work only to be told–after driving for two hours–that they are not needed because someone else also signed up that shift. An online, collaborative document can solve that problem. Google docs states that their product allows users to:

  • Share and collaborate in real time with volunteers, co-workers, and partner organizations, eliminating the need to email updated attachments back and forth;
  • Safely store your work where it’s not vulnerable to a damaged or left-behind laptop;
  • Edit and access online, from anywhere, at any time.

The ability to share and collaborate in real-time came in handy during the Joplin tornado when many volunteers were required to process and track the other volunteers showing up to work. See how AmeriCorps used the application:

Using Google Docs is as easy as using Microsoft Word, however, there are a few differences to get used to. Here is a tutorial created by Anson Alexander that provides a good basic overview. It is a worth watching the entire thing, even if you already are a Google Docs user.

Your Turn



Module 13: Using Twitter to Connect to Other Professionals


Objective: To understand how Twitter (and to some extent other social media) can be used to connect to other professionals in your field that live in your county, state, or in the broader US.

Social media is often only discussed from the point of view of how to reach the public with emergency preparedness, response and recovery information. It is true that the tools are well suited for community outreach, but what is missing from that conversation is how great these tools are for reaching other professionals responsible for public health and safety.


Conversations about your profession are happening on Twitter all day, everyday. Public health professionals often tag their tweets with hashtag (#) #PublicHealth. Law Enforcement personnel often use #LESM (law enforcement social media).

For emergency managers, the active tag is #SMEM, or social media and emergency management. This tag was formed organically by practitioners who wanted a place to discuss rapid changes in emergency management caused by emerging social networking technology. One participant notes: “One strength of a hashtag based discussion is that it occurs continuously so people around the world can participate regardless of time zone.”

Why should you care? These conversations can turn into connections that provide access to information you might not otherwise see, and also allow you the opportunity to ask and answer questions. For instance, in one week you might see content that addresses these questions:

What information is available about vulnerable populations?


What new tools or software solutions are available?

What creative ideas are out there for National Preparedness Month?

Who posts content?

Firefighters, local emergency managers, PIOs, police captains, as well as luminaries, such as the director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, all participate on the #smem hashtag. Here is how a few of these folks appear in their personal profiles.

Bill Boyd

Fire chief, crisis communicator, planner…

Mike Parker

PIO, Sheriff’s HQ -Newsroom @lasd_news Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept- Engaging, not endorsing thru social media http://www.lasd.org, Los Angeles County, California.

Wendy Harman

 Director of Social Strategy for American Red Cross, but you can blame me for these tweets.

Twitter Chats

It is likely emergency response personnel and/or interested public information officers might not have the time to watch the tag very often. This is why the concept of a coordinated scheduled weekly chat was proposed (Fridays 12:30-1:30 EST) using the tag #smemchat.  The very first chat, which occured in January 2011, was quite fun for all involved since the director of FEMA, Craig Fugate, spontaneously posed a question to the group: “Branding issues and use of other hashtags, is there a need for the EM community to have a common way to share info?” This prompted a long (and ongoing) discussion about hashtag use during disasters–but that’s another story!

Administrator Fugate’s participation does, however, illustrate how the chats have broken down walls for federal officials to interact with locals on an ongoing basis. Due to this regular participation from feds, there is a misperception that the chat and the tag were created by FEMA, but both were started by people acting outside of their official capacities only with the interest of moving the conversation about social media further down the road. That is partly why it has been so successful. Below, one EM describes the experience:

“The SMEMchat has provided the ability to bring together many silos of excellence and experience. Meeting together unifies our profession geographically without having to be a formal conference. SMEMchat is a 24 hour 7 days a week virtual conference/thinktank of mindshare. I have taken many great comments, needs, recommendations and hopefully provided many ideas, answers and innovation during the our weekly chats.” -Pascal Schuback, EM Seattle

How does this work?

This is the absolute best part, in order to participate all that is required is literally adding the #smem tag to something you tweet, or the tag #smemchat on Fridays at 1230. You can simply watch what is being said, without posting anything, by entering #smem into the search box at the top of your twitter page–or into one of the columns, if you are using Tweetdeck.

Be mindful, however, that anything you post with the tag  #smem will reach other professionals, NOT your hometown community members. For instance:

DON’T say

“Weather warning for Springfield, MA. Be prepared! #smem”

Someone might send you a message like this:

DO say

 “Read this great article (URLhere.com) on how to better communicate emergency preparedness info with non-English speaking members of your community. #smem”

Learning the language and the culture of twitter does take a little time, I won’t lie. But there’s no better place to start than with the very supportive group you can find on the #smem tag.

One more thing…for this project, and potentially for use in the future by the emergency management community in Western Massachusetts, we have started using the tag #WMASMEM, which stands for Western Mass Social Media and Emergency Management. Take the plunge, share an idea there, or two.

Your Turn