Last night, I finally turned off the New Zealand earthquake information fire hose. It wasn’t because I had lost interest, but rather I was struggling with filtering relevant and interesting information related to my current interests- rescue efforts, restoration of critical infrastructure, and ad-hoc SM crisis information support. Before shutting down, I confirmed my earlier fears that the damage and death toll is likely much greater than originally anticipated (usually is), and SM would continue to play a pivotal role in connecting people during crisis- on an international scale.
As I reflect back on the past few days, I tried to envision myself as one of the response leaders charged with getting a handle on the depth and breadth of this mess. Having dealt with smaller (but large in the general sense) events, I know how slooowwwww information seems to trickle in initially Gaining situational awareness to make the right call is damn near impossible in the early moments of a large event like the Christchurch quake. Emergency crews likely picked themselves up off the floor, dusted themselves off, checked on each other and hit the streets to make a difference. While doing so, they undoubtedly began confronting a myriad of problems, some of which would have resulted in a “ya’ll come” response on a normal day. But, they likely faced them alone, with the exception of the spontaneous citizen heroes who always make a difference in the initial stages of a huge disaster.
I’m sure the loss of communications infrastructure (phones/cell phones) was extremely frustrating. The Incident Commanders likely knew they were in midst of a really big deal, confronted with conflicting, overwhelming, underwhelming, emotional and unbelievable information. I’m sure within a fairly short time information started flooding in, making it difficult to make sense of it all. As an objective Twitter observer oceans away I certainly felt that way, via one narrow communications channel.
During this type of highly dynamic event I’m not sure the availability of social media makes a significant difference in how emergency resources are initially deployed. With that said, I obviously believe in the power of SM in augmenting situational awareness in disasters (along with communicating/engaging). But, as an Incident Commander in the initial stages of an event, I’m relying heavily on my troops on the street to give me their eyeball view of what is going on to help figure out who gets what, and how much they need. Once their information starts coming in, I should have a handle on overall “largeness “, helping me build my ICS team, and assign folks to prioritizing problems and allocating resources. It is during this time that the information available through SM would come into play with my planning/situation unit folks. In other words, it takes time to get this fully ramped up.
But, that doesn’t mean SM isn’t having an impact on crisis response. Family members, friends, neighbors and others will immediately reach out to each other through their established networks. This impromptu communications community can mobilize vast amounts of organized help at the speed of light, and provide highly targeted assistance – even on an international scale. Check out this blog for an example what I am talking about: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marie-elena-martinez/social-media-in-a-time-of_b_827378.html
We just need to realize and accept that this type of assistance likely won’t be ordered by my Logistics Section Chief……