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Social Media in Action: Twitter and Emergency Response

September 23, 2008

Social Media

If you were reading the news or traveling by plane today, you probably already know about the JetBlue evacuation of JFK airport in New York today.  Turns out the evacuation was precautionary, and ended up being just two paperweights that resembled grenades.  However, to a social media dork like me, the really fascinating part of this story was that I was there (I was one of the evacuees at JFK this morning), and I was directly involved in bringing the story to light (I, along with a few others tweeted about the incident as it happened).

So, why does this matter?  And even more importantly, what does it have to do with emergency response?

Let’s take a look at the timeline for some more information –

Twitter Search Results for "JFK"

Twitter Search Results for

7:54 AM – I tweeted that “Sooo…JFK airport is being evacuated right now….just great.”  Right around this same time, @almacy, @johnhamilton22, and @imnotobsessed also tweeted similar messages about the evacuation.

7:59 AM - One of the people who follow my tweets, Mark Drapeau (@cheeky_geeky) saw my tweet and began re-tweeting so that now, both of our networks of followers would get the information.

8:00 AM - I overhear some JetBlue employees saying that “some idiot had hand grenades in his bag”

JFK Airport evacuated in NYC @JetBlue on TwitPic

Scene outside JetBlue Terminal at JFK

8:03 AM – @almacy posted a picture of the scene

8:05 AM - Mainstream media begins to catch on – Geraldo Rivera on the scene!

8:06 AMBlogsofWar posts the running Twitter traffic

8:13 AM - FOX5 in New York finally reports on the story but with no real information and no mention of “grenades”

8:23 AM - First references to the “grenades” on mainstream media

8:50 AM - Crisis averted, and everyone is let back in to the terminal

We’ve already seen examples of this in the London bombings and the Virginia Tech shootings – today’s evacuation is another sign of the times, albeit on a much smaller scale.  Think about the potential impact that Twitter, blogs, and other social media could have on emergency response efforts.

Government agencies should advise first-responders to start monitoring the social media world, including Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere just as they do the police scanner.  Where the police scanner gave the average Joe a way to learn about what was happening in their neighborhood before the mainstream media could report on it, tools like Twitter do this and more.  Now, not only can people learn what’s going on from people who are involved first-hand and in real-time, they can also use these tools to share this information with anyone else who is monitoring them (like I did).

If this morning’s evacuation had been a serious threat, think about the potential benefits that could have been realized if the government agencies involved were using Twitter.

  • They would have a real-time timeline of what happened from the time the announcement happened
  • They would be able to pinpoint to the minute where people were, and what they were doing
  • They could use the pictures taken at the scene and posted to the web to identify who was where and when
  • Families and friends are notified en masse of people’s statuses
  • Agencies would know what information (and mis-information) is being spread on the ground and could use that to dispel rumors and correct mis-information

Now, I’m not nieve enough to suggest that FEMA should be monitoring Twitter all the time and jumping anytime there’s mention of a disaster.  I’m merely suggesting that government agencies and mainstream media need to place a greater emphasis on mining these sources, and training their staff on how to use the informaton that’s available to them.

I know that there are some real risks to this approach as well – hoaxes would seem to be that much easier to pull off, for example.  Are there others?  What other benefits do you see?  What obstacles exist?

For more information on this topic, refer to these two excellent blogs, who also had an opinion on the  power of Twitter.

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

View all posts by sradick

23 Responses to “Social Media in Action: Twitter and Emergency Response”

  1. Adam R. Says:

    I think this is great localized example of social media in action, Steve. Had this turned into a real emergency, tuning in to the 100s of “journalists” (i.e., anyone with a cell phone) on the scene might provide some valuable insights. I say “might” because it will take cell phones becoming more ubiquitous as data collection devices (i.e., people of diverse generations using them to snap and upload photos, tweet, etc. – we’re almost there) AND emergency responders will need to develop better and more sophisticated filters to be able to use this effectively.

    As for the possibility of a prank, it would be difficult to orchestrate such a thing. The filters mentioned above would have to tuned such that an event would only ping if multiple people reported it and provided evidence such as photos, videos, locations, etc., which could all be nearly instantly verifiable. The transparency of this media makes a “War of the Worlds” trickery nearly a thing of the past!

  2. Adam R. Says:

    I think this is great localized example of social media in action, Steve. Had this turned into a real emergency, tuning in to the 100s of “journalists” (i.e., anyone with a cell phone) on the scene might provide some valuable insights. I say “might” because it will take cell phones becoming more ubiquitous as data collection devices (i.e., people of diverse generations using them to snap and upload photos, tweet, etc. – we’re almost there) AND emergency responders will need to develop better and more sophisticated filters to be able to use this effectively.

    As for the possibility of a prank, it would be difficult to orchestrate such a thing. The filters mentioned above would have to tuned such that an event would only ping if multiple people reported it and provided evidence such as photos, videos, locations, etc., which could all be nearly instantly verifiable. The transparency of this media makes a “War of the Worlds” trickery nearly a thing of the past!

  3. KT Says:

    I agree that it’s not feasible for FEMA and emergency responders to monitor twitter at all times, but what about creating an @911 or @fema (or even #emergency) identity/topic on twitter? This way, emergency responders will be able to search for consistent terms (or if they claim one of the @ names above, won’t those messages arrive directly?).

  4. KT Says:

    I agree that it’s not feasible for FEMA and emergency responders to monitor twitter at all times, but what about creating an @911 or @fema (or even #emergency) identity/topic on twitter? This way, emergency responders will be able to search for consistent terms (or if they claim one of the @ names above, won’t those messages arrive directly?).

  5. Jon-Erik Says:

    The idea of Twitter is starting to grow on me, and reading your latest entry opens my eyes a bit more to the possibilities. I can see myself using Twitter as a tool for something as simple as navigating city traffic. Now being in a position where I’m expected to travel and meet with co-workers (from both regional and international offices) in various cities, Twitter makes sense as a simple way to track progress, late flights, ideas, etc. While I’m still preaching the idea of Web 2.0 to my co-workers, most of whom grew up without computers or cell phones, making sense of social media as a business tool or tactic will go a long way in establishing Web 2.0 as a viable communication option.

  6. Jon-Erik Says:

    The idea of Twitter is starting to grow on me, and reading your latest entry opens my eyes a bit more to the possibilities. I can see myself using Twitter as a tool for something as simple as navigating city traffic. Now being in a position where I’m expected to travel and meet with co-workers (from both regional and international offices) in various cities, Twitter makes sense as a simple way to track progress, late flights, ideas, etc. While I’m still preaching the idea of Web 2.0 to my co-workers, most of whom grew up without computers or cell phones, making sense of social media as a business tool or tactic will go a long way in establishing Web 2.0 as a viable communication option.

  7. Jon-Erik Says:

    I’m sure they mentioned this at the conference, but in case you haven’t seen it yet:
    http://www.technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/

  8. Jon-Erik Says:

    I’m sure they mentioned this at the conference, but in case you haven’t seen it yet:
    http://www.technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/

  9. sradick Says:

    @Jon-Erik – yep, they not only mentioned it, but the CEO of Technorati was there, and did a whole keynote session on it!

  10. sradick Says:

    @Jon-Erik – yep, they not only mentioned it, but the CEO of Technorati was there, and did a whole keynote session on it!

  11. sradick Says:

    @KT – good point, however, then you get into the game of (and yes, the social media lead for Kaiser Permanente mentioned that they had to do this) having to send an ambulance every time someone uses the @911 designator. They had set up message boards, and people would go on there and say that they’re having a heart attack and (I guess) Kaiser was required to send an ambulance to respond. How do you manage that?

  12. sradick Says:

    @KT – good point, however, then you get into the game of (and yes, the social media lead for Kaiser Permanente mentioned that they had to do this) having to send an ambulance every time someone uses the @911 designator. They had set up message boards, and people would go on there and say that they’re having a heart attack and (I guess) Kaiser was required to send an ambulance to respond. How do you manage that?

  13. KT Says:

    @sradick – Interesting point about Kaiser. I agree it wouldn’t be feasible for @911 to trigger an ambulance, but setting up a folksonomy of an @user name or #topic would help first responders, reporters, etc. more effectively search twitter feeds. After all, these people listen to police scanners, not every shortwave radio frequency — they need to weed through the chaff and get to the good stuff. If a bunch of people in one location start twittering with @911 or #emergency, then the authorities can be alerted fairly easily, vice the uncoordinated words/categories you and the other twitterers used at JFK.

  14. KT Says:

    @sradick – Interesting point about Kaiser. I agree it wouldn’t be feasible for @911 to trigger an ambulance, but setting up a folksonomy of an @user name or #topic would help first responders, reporters, etc. more effectively search twitter feeds. After all, these people listen to police scanners, not every shortwave radio frequency — they need to weed through the chaff and get to the good stuff. If a bunch of people in one location start twittering with @911 or #emergency, then the authorities can be alerted fairly easily, vice the uncoordinated words/categories you and the other twitterers used at JFK.

  15. phardee Says:

    Hi, Steve–I can see the benefits of Twittering in emergency situations. Looking at the timeline between your first tweet and the FOX5 announcement is impressive. But one of your points gave me pause–“they would be able to pinpoint to the minute where people were, and what they were doing.” That’s great in the case of emergencies or terrorist situations, but from a privacy point of view, I find it scary. I’m not sure I would want my location and activities to be pinpointed every minute of the day.

  16. phardee Says:

    Hi, Steve–I can see the benefits of Twittering in emergency situations. Looking at the timeline between your first tweet and the FOX5 announcement is impressive. But one of your points gave me pause–“they would be able to pinpoint to the minute where people were, and what they were doing.” That’s great in the case of emergencies or terrorist situations, but from a privacy point of view, I find it scary. I’m not sure I would want my location and activities to be pinpointed every minute of the day.

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  19. FEMAinFocus Says:

    You are right about the value of social media tools for emergency communications.

    FEMA is in fact using twitter. We do have to be careful, though, and make sure we are supporting Incident Command principles and not overstepping what state and local officials are saying / tweeting. We search Twitter based on (FEMA) user location for people seeking information or asking questions. Twitters is proving not only useful in disaster responses, but also during recoveries to provide customer service and education. We are using YouTube to help tell complex stories as well.

    I think the more folks who see the value in engaging the government in these tools, the better we will all be able to shape useful communications for emergencies.

    John

  20. FEMAinFocus Says:

    You are right about the value of social media tools for emergency communications.

    FEMA is in fact using twitter. We do have to be careful, though, and make sure we are supporting Incident Command principles and not overstepping what state and local officials are saying / tweeting. We search Twitter based on (FEMA) user location for people seeking information or asking questions. Twitters is proving not only useful in disaster responses, but also during recoveries to provide customer service and education. We are using YouTube to help tell complex stories as well.

    I think the more folks who see the value in engaging the government in these tools, the better we will all be able to shape useful communications for emergencies.

    John

  21. sradick Says:

    John – you bring up an excellent point about not existing in a vacuum. Whether it’s Twitter or YouTube or any other form of social media, it’s important that what you’re saying there is consistent with what your organization says in the mainstream media. That’s why successful social media efforts are integrated into the larger organizational strategy – you can’t have all of your social media efforts handled by that “crazy Steve guy” down the hall while your public affairs officers have no idea what he’s tweeting or blogging about. It should all be visible and open – “oh, that stuff is too high tech for me to understand” should NEVER be an acceptable response from a communications professional anymore.

  22. sradick Says:

    John – you bring up an excellent point about not existing in a vacuum. Whether it’s Twitter or YouTube or any other form of social media, it’s important that what you’re saying there is consistent with what your organization says in the mainstream media. That’s why successful social media efforts are integrated into the larger organizational strategy – you can’t have all of your social media efforts handled by that “crazy Steve guy” down the hall while your public affairs officers have no idea what he’s tweeting or blogging about. It should all be visible and open – “oh, that stuff is too high tech for me to understand” should NEVER be an acceptable response from a communications professional anymore.

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