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Social Media Changing the Way FEMA Responds to Disasters 

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By Steff Thomas 



More than 70 percent of people in disaster situations use social media to let their families and friends know that they are OK, according to a University of San Francisco survey.

This shows that the use of social media in responding to natural disasters is becoming crucial to emergency response agencies, Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., chairwoman of the House subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and communications, said at a recent hearing.

“Social media enables response organizations to quickly push information to the public — something that has not been possible on such a wide scale until recently,” she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has three Facebook pages and 34 Twitter accounts. It is imperative for response organizations to leverage the tools used by the public on a daily basis, Shayne Adamski, senior manager of digital engagement at FEMA, told lawmakers.

“Millions of Americans use social media every day to check in on friends and family, learn about current events and share their experiences. FEMA uses social media to be part of this ongoing dialogue and meet people where they are by using tools and platforms they are already familiar with,” he said.

But social media can be a double-edged sword when it is used to spread misinformation.

Social media opens the doors for some to publish misleading or faulty information online, Brooks said. “There is a need to establish common standards and procedures to help make the sharing of data more efficient,” she added.

FEMA is attempting to mitigate this problem by developing a rumor control webpage that denounces or verifies information spread by the use of social media. Moving forward, FEMA plans to continue to engage in online conversations, provide information to the public and produce a better-informed public, Adamski said.

“We are constantly refining our social media approach, listening to feedback from our stakeholders and keeping our ear to the ground on the ever-evolving world of social media and the digital space,” he added.

FEMA has been able to provide up-to-date response information, offer safety and preparedness tips, inform the public of effective ways to help disaster survivors, direct them to available assistance and gain valuable feedback, he added.

The University of San Francisco survey carried out by the online master’s of public administration program also found that 80 percent of Americans expect emergency response agencies to monitor social media sites. One out of three citizens expect help to arrive within an hour of posting a request online, the survey said.

Social media can also be a source of information for agencies that keep tabs on disasters.
In 2012, the Red Cross and Dell paired to open a digital operations center, a social media monitoring platform dedicated solely to humanitarian relief.

The survey reported that Instagram users uploaded Hurricane Sandy related photos at the rate of 10 per second during the height of the storm.

FEMA was the first agency to develop a text message short code that supplied the public with information on open disaster recovery centers and shelters.

“It received more than 10,000 requests in one day from people searching for shelter locations within a specific ZIP code,” Adamski said.

FEMA also has a smartphone app that provides disaster safety tips, and maps to shelters, according to its website. It sends wireless emergency alerts to local and state authorities. Local and state public safety officials can take these alerts and send them directly to citizens’ cell phones to inform them of anything from severe weather to Amber Alerts, he said.

Other organizations have also been implementing similar technologies.

Kristen Anderson, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and chief evangelist at LiveSafe, an Arlington, Va.-based company that develops public safety applications, said her company is marketing an application to improve safety on college campuses.

Anderson said that in two-thirds of school shootings, two or three people are tipped off about it before it happens. “No one wakes up one day and decides to commit a school shooting. People know about it and there’s leakage,” she said at a Brookings Institution panel.

Mobile technology was a way for LiveSafe to reach students and encourage them to submit information and tips — publicly or anonymously — to law enforcement if a threat or danger on campus is perceived, she said.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock, FEMA

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