Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Follow up to the SMEM camp at NEMA

I had the opportunity earlier this year to attend the SMEM (social media in emergency management) camp which was held in conjunction with the mid-year meeting of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) in Washington DC.

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet with, and learn from, some of the leaders and champions in the adoption of social media in emergency management programs across the US. It was also a very interesting forum for emergency managers to get immersed in the world of social media. A perfect symbiosis. 

I also authored part of a report, focusing on SMEM in Canada. The report was made possible thanks to CNA and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in support of the CrisisCommons and the SMEM Initiative communities,. The full report can be found on the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

I've been asked to expand on one of the report's key recommendations:

Exercises and real-world events: Continue efforts to integrate social media tools and data into response exercises. These efforts are critical not only to understanding the value of social media, but also to creating a level of comfort in their use by emergency managers. In addition, efforts to capture the role of social media and the response of VTCs through post-event analysis and after-action reports should be funded and formalized before an event occurs.

Although just a few months have gone by, the SMEM landscape has already changed considerably. The NEMA meeting followed the triple disaster in Japan (earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima) by a few days, We could already see that social media was playing a growing role in those disasters. Another illustration of this here.

This phenomenon accelerated during the spring and summer of 2011. Severe weather events in the US spurred enormous social media activity. From Joplin to Tuscaloosa, agencies, volunteers and citizens turned to social networks to get news, push out information and coordinate relief efforts.

But to my mind, it was Hurricane Irene which marked the turning point in the generalized acceptance of social media tools by governments, emergency management organizations and volunteer groups. The following from a previous post here, sums up my reasoning:

  1. Hurricane Irene seemed to mark a turning point for the acceptance of social media by emergency management officials, certainly as an information tool. The use of key social networks was widespread. Combined with the alerts and notifications blasted across legacy media and other means, its was a pretty thorough blanketing of emergency information and preparedness messaging.  They even moved into the realm of crowdsourcing damage assessments.
  2. I'm grateful social networks played such a key role because the coverage of legacy media (particularly from major TV networks) was for the most pathetic and alarmist (to my shame as a former reporter ....) I've seen in a long time ... with reporters often seemingly thinking that their "valiant" efforts to show the impact of the storm were the story ... and when New York City wasn't devastated, it became about the storm that wasn't ...well, Irene left her mark. The people of Vt, NC, NJ and other states are sure feeling her wrath ... Here's a piece by Gerald Baron on the media issue ...
  3. There were lots of crowdsourcing and crisis mapping efforts underway. One key objective of our after action report will be to look at coordination efforts in that regard. Another aspect of our work will be to help assess the validity of these efforts and their usefulness. More on this topic in this blog post.
In real life, we already see extensive use of social media throughout the whole emergency management spectrum: from preparedness to recovery. Slowly, this is also becoming true for exercise purposes.

Stacy Hypes, wrote the following in a blog post for the University of North Carolina's Center for Public Technology.
Emergency drills should include practicing using the appropriate social media tools to communicate with the public.
 FEMA just conducted a nationwide test of the EAS yesterday. Many organizations are reviewing their alerting and notification protocols to include social media in drills, to test how they can increase their "reach" during an emergency.

The use of social media, Twitter in particular, can prove problematic during exercises as outlined by this post from Cheryl Bledsoe, one of the true luminaries in the SMEM world:

This becomes really challenging on Twitter because of the 140 character length restriction.  In some exercises, I have observed the following:
  • People retweeting the messages and stripping out the “This is an exercise message” portion
  • Intermixing exercise messages and real-world flooding information
  • Use of an exercise hashtag that was not clearly understood during the exercise, resulting in questions & confusion among observers
Tools have been developed to keep the exercise scenario in a closed loop and still be able to drill social media injects and play. Weber Shandwick's FireBell is such a product. The organizational social networking platform Yammer also offers opportunities to drill social media privately.

We hope that the launch of the report by CNA will spur further debate and integration of social media into emergency management programs at all levels. The truth is that more and more organizations are doing it, leaving you with starting blocks so you don't have to reinvent the wheel.

Good luck !

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