New media sites like Twitter and Facebook are allowing people to stay up-to-date in
times of disaster. But emergency management officials believe the new
communications strategies also present challenges.
By Alexa Noruk and Beverly Bell
The warning came through, loud and clear: People in the Mena need to get to their storm shelters now to take safety measures
9:05 p.m., April 9 from TinyTwitter
The tiny tweet was followed by information needed by those in the storm-ravaged areas of Arkansas.
@artornado: shelters have been set up in Mena. 1) Dallas Ave Baptist Church: 300 Dallas Ave 2) 1st Assembly: 2221 Southerland
11:04 p.m., April 9 from twhirl
Twhirl is a desktop program that allows users to cross-post updates on various social sites, including Twitter.
@artornado: Governor Beebe has sent 30 Arkansas National Guardsmen to assist with security in Mena
11:29 p.m., April 9 from twhirl
RT @ARForestryComm: crews in Polk, Little River, Howard, Montgomery and Pike meeting at staging area to find out where assistance is needed
11:04 a.m., April 10 from twhirl
It was a whole new way for the Arkansas emergency management department to communicate with the public during the April tornadoes. For the first ever, the agency used Twitter to share real-time updates with those in the path of the tornadoes.
Dave Maxwell, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said it makes sense to use these social networking sites to communicate information.
“People are using Internet sites like Twitter to get real news,” he said. “This means that we need to join these sites to make sure the public receives accurate information about what is going on.”
And those sites offer one other benefit: Maxwell said even when the power went out, residents were able to stay current on information because Twitter provides the option of sending alerts to cell phones.
“Twitter has proven to be a valuable resource when it comes to getting information to the public during a disaster,” he said.
But even with the benefits, there are questions. Emergency management offices need to decide which social networking sites to include in their communications strategy, how to balance those with traditional communications methods, and how to ensure inaccurate information doesn’t create havoc.
Reaching Out in Disasters
Arkansas isn’t alone in using new media to get the message out in times of disasters.
The District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency used Twitter to communicate with residents and visitors during the weeklong celebration for President Obama’s inauguration.
In addition to Twitter, The Florida Division of Emergency Management started posting daily and weekly situational reports on YouTube in January as a way for Floridians to get the latest information on any kind of hazard or weather event.
These agencies are realizing one clear advantage of social media: Because disasters can happen at any time, sites like Twitter and Facebook provide fast, diverse communication to a wide audience. Emergency managers can now distribute vital notifications to thousands in a matter of seconds by hitting the send or post button. And they have the opportunity for a two-way dialogue between government officials and the public.
“Using Twitter … we’re now able to get feedback on our public information efforts in real time without waiting for an op-ed in the weekend newspaper,” said Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Ruben Almaguer. This allows officials to correct erroneous information and make adjustments to response efforts.
Dialogue can also be helpful in recovery after a disaster or emergency. Updates on the availability of lifesaving ice, water and food can direct survivors to staging areas and problems can be communicated immediately to the government.