As a social media (SM) junky for a few years now, I have had lots of opportunities to use the medium during a community’s worst day. I’ve made some mistakes and learned some lessons along the way, but now feel comfortable enough with it to be downright dangerous. Monitoring disasters unfold on SM has also been very enlightening, especially during the latest tornado outbreak in the southern US.
As we all now know, during spectacular crisis folks start warning, validating, reporting, opining, speculating and spinning their experiences. Most of these “social media first responders” do so with good intentions. At the same time, response crews stuck in the middle of the mess are dealing with physical searches, rescues, size ups, firefighting, haz mat, patient treatment and changing flat tires (lots of nails in roads after hurricanes and tornadoes). While a natural occurrence in the early stages of crisis, a response agency must bridge this information abyss as soon as possible, and it won’t happen by standing in the EOC trying to come up with a catchy hashtag (sorry #SMEMchat types, couldn’t help myself). While monitoring the recent tornado outbreak, I knew if something on a similar order of magnitude hit my community, there is no way on God’s green earth my agency or our partners would be in a position to quickly ramp up a robust SM monitoring and messaging organization. The IC and PIO are now unrealistically expected to immediately inform and engage. I’ve said it before, we’ll never be fast enough. Add the potential personal impact on the initial responders and compromise of critical infrastructure and the job is essentially impossible in the early stages.
So, what do we do about it? Fire up a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST). Organize a group of volunteers experienced and comfortable in using social media platforms. Train them in the basics of personal preparedness, emergency management, SMEM and Incident Command, and send them a cool tee shirt. You’ll now have a group of folks ready to bridge the SM abyss. The concept for VOST was spearheaded by SM thought leader/Emergency Manager Jeff Phillips (@LosRanchosEM) a couple of years ago. An excellent overview of the concept can be found here, so I won’t describe it further. Emergency management organizations are starting to take notice, including the Clark County (WA) Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA) who today announced the forming of a VOST, or as they called it a “Twitter Strike Team”.
As emergency management organizations, we rely on organized volunteers to help when things go ugly early. As we saw with the Indiana State Fair stage collapse last summer, spontaneous volunteers will always be faster and often more effective in the initial stages of a disaster. People just jump in and get to work, often saving the majority of the lives in the first critical moments. Of course there are inherent challenges for emergency responders in gaining scene control when this happens. But, often these folks are doing good work, and because they witnessed/survived they likely have better situational awareness than the first in emergency crews
The same holds true for us SM first responders. As soon as the dust settles, the plume goes up, or the wind dies down, we are already monitoring the situation and sharing what we consider important information through our own networks, with the hope that somehow this information may help someone in the impacted zone. Local emergency services dispatch channels and weather cameras are monitored, allowing those of us with emergency response backgrounds to interpret and piece together the complexities and challenges a community faces. We then share these observations in a localized way (trending hashtags) that helps build a virtual ad hoc disaster community. The speed at which we can connect directly into various real time communication feeds almost anywhere in the world continues to blow my mind.
After sitting in the SM “cheap seats” during evolving disasters over the past couple of years, I believe the VOST concept is not only valid, but a valuable and practical approach in integrating crowd intelligence into crisis management. I’ll be curious to learn about CRESA’s success in building a sustainable team.
Emergency management agencies work closely with local and regional HAM radio operators equipped to help in disasters. I’m thinking a fair number of them may be SMEM disciples as well. Is there a synergy we can exploit here? I’m also wondering how you keep a geographically diverse group engaged and in sync in supporting specific communities before the crisis (and resulting altruism) hits. Seems like it could be similar to herding cats.
I guess given the VOST concept is in its infancy, having more questions than answers is OK. I plan on asking a few more with my staff soon.