In one of his recent blog posts for Emergency Management Magazine, Eric Holdeman declared the debate over as it relates to the need to use social media tools in emergency management. I’m not so sure the debate or discussion is over yet, as the snail’s pace of government will keep the dialogue going for a while. But, it really doesn’t matter. Social media has already revolutionized how we communicate. It is simply a matter of not everyone realizing it yet. As a colleague of mine once said, quoting a techno-futurist, “The future is now. It is just not evenly distributed.”
Eric correctly notes that we now need to knuckle down and do the dirty work in institutionalizing SM tools into our emergency management and IC operations. As I have been experiencing, this is a tall order. My organization has dipped its toes into the SM waters on a very basic level – pushing information out through various SM channels. However, we have yet to reach the level of continuous engagement. Why? Simple, no money.
Yesterday, we had a high visibility MVA that shut down the major freeway cooridor between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.. A tanker truck carrying liquid nitrogen overturned, and began spewing the cold stuff everywhere. The sight of white “fog” creeping across all four lanes of the freeway caused just a wee bit of consternation with the motoring public and adjacent businesses.
I-5 IC was doing a great job managing the scene and related freeway traffic issues in concert with the Washington State Patrol. But back in our dispatch center and FD Headquarters the pressure to provide public information and instruction NOW was intense, based on a quick survey of key words on Twitter. I needed someone else to manage this so I could concentrate on strategic issues related to the fallout of having thousands of vehicles routed via detour through our city. But, alas, we are not there yet. What was cool was I was able to use Twitter to communicate with Washington DOT in helping coordinate our respective messaging early on.
Sure, we have been quick to link to the various free platforms and push out information related to our organizations efforts. My community expects….no….demands to be engaged with and heard through robust neighborhood associations and grass-roots special interest groups. But, it takes trained people and time to reliably and consistently engage our citizens. Multiple years of budget cuts eliminated FTE’s, heaping more work on the remaining employees and reduced service levels throughout the organization. Within my own department, we eliminated a PIO position and other public safety education programs to help preserve basic emergency response capabilities.
So, now what? Well, we keep pluggin’ along. Until someone says “Stop!”, here is what we are doing (and not doing);
- I already have a firmly established and engaged presence on Twitter with my personal account, followed by national/international SMEM thought leaders, emergency response professionals and local/regional news media.
- I use my account to engage my various communities on topics of personal and professional interest.
- I don’t follow everyone who follows me. This likely means I don’t have as many followers as I could have. But, it is more about quality than quantity of the content. (I do follow a few golf accounts though!)
- We are just now introducing and educating key city and county emergency management staff on the benefits and use of SM tools for emergency communications. I hope this approach will reduce concerns about heaping on additional work on already full plates.
- Set up an agency Twitter account. But, we are keeping it “dark” until we have enough people trained, and confidence that we can reliably inform and engage.
- We are discussing messaging strategy and engagement themes, and identifying the “power followers” that we want to engage to leverage their influence during crisis.
- Until we have a solid group of “power followers” on our EM account, we need to assimilate existing personal accounts that have these connections to distribute information and engage.
I’m confident we will get there. But, like the old Beatles song goes, it’s a “long and winding road”. And given this, sometimes it feels like the future was yesterday.