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Phases SMhases

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Having suffered through four years of study and research paper production required to complete the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, I swore I would never read another research paper, abstract, study or comic book related to emergency services.  Instead, I “checked out” and parked my butt in front of my big screen watching episodes of Rescue Me.   But, as I desperately mined the internet for my latest blog topic I stumbled upon a gem of a 2012 published paper titled ‘Facebooking’ Towards Crisis Recovery and Beyond: Disruption as an Opportunity, written by Bryan Semaan and Gloria Mark from the University of California, Irvine.

Their work analyzed the usefulness of Facebook by Iraqi’s immersed in the Iraqi War. They surveyed 218 Iraqi citizens and interviewed 45 others whose lives were – and still are disrupted. The study focused on how Facebook is being used in supporting people in crisis environments recover from disruption and establish and maintain new social norms and communities.

But, what really caught my eye was how the authors categorized the different phases of disasters in which Facebook was used.  I’m not talking about the standard phases of emergency management  mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.  The authors chose to use a really old (WELL before I was born) definition published by John Walker Powell in his work  An Introduction to the Natural History of Disaster (1954).

Powell broke down the natural progression of disasters into eight distinct phases;

  1. Pre-disaster       A community’s pre-event condition
  2. Warning               Community alerted or becomes aware of the pending threat
  3. Threat                   Preventive/mitigating measures taken to limit damage
  4. Impact                  Damage occurs and citizens begin to process what needs to happen to fix it
  5. Inventory            People take stock and determine a course of action
  6. Rescue                 Ad hoc efforts to help themselves and others
  7. Remedy               The cavalry arrives – First Responders, Red Cross, FEMA, etc…
  8. Recovery             A return to a sense of normalcy, or establishing a “new normal”

Semaan and Mark referenced phases 4-8 in assessing  how Facebook was used by those impacted by war in searching for family/friends and maintaining social networks in highly dangerous and dynamic situations.

Those of us in the SMEM world sporadically talk about the best social media tools to use during the four phases of emergency management/disaster.  But, it is hard to pin down the right tools to apply to the really broad four categories widely adopted by EM agencies.  In fact, some argue that due to the societal complexity created by disaster disruption, there really are no “phases” of disaster, rather just a mishmash of environmental realities that folks are dealing with at any given time.  But, that’s too deep to me, so as a bureaucrat I’m liking Powell’s nice and tidy eight phases.

In writing this post, I started off thinking I would list the best SM tools to use in each of the phases.  But, given new SM sites seem to be popping up every day, I thought better of it.  Instead, let’s just say established SM networks like Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, etc… are well suited and used for steps 1 and 8.  When it comes to steps 2-7, micro-blogging sites like Twitter and SMS/MMS messaging tools seem best suited for quickly assessing and relaying emergent and rapidly changing information.  One exception to this is SM networks like Facebook and Google are now being used during the Inventory phase to check on the safety of isolated friends and loved ones.

It is worth noting that disasters rarely evolve cleanly through the eight steps.  Rather, depending on location, available resources, social structures, economic status, etc…, individuals, neighborhoods and even whole communities may transition through these phases at different times, or in some cases “get stuck” and never fully recover (like some neighborhoods in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans whacked by Hurricane Katrina).  This means those of us responsible for assessing and communicating must be nimble and aware of the benefits and limitations of each of the SM tools we use.  It also means we must be proficient in using the tools (or have access to those that do), along with leveraging all of our “old school” methods of communicating.

While I may have been sick of reading dry research abstracts, Semaan and Mark’s work was pretty interesting.  Plus, I was tired of watching Rescue Me re-runs.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Jim

    Great post, Chief! I appreciate the phases that you mention, because they refer me back to my public health theories. One that I’m particularly enamored with called Stages of Change. SoC basically means that different people at different times are on a continuum of a process. Take quitting smoking for example: giving information or strategies to help is dependent on which stage they are in. If they’re considering quitting, you tell them one thing. If they’ve started quitting, you tell them another. If they’ve already quit, you tell them something else. Because telling someone who’s just starting out that it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and everyone slips up once and again, is just about the worst thing you can say to them.

    To bring it back to the emergency situation. Different people in a disaster will progress through those eight phases at different speeds. One person might uptake that warning message very quickly and move right into the threat phase. Someone else might take longer to heed the warning and not progress as quickly as others. Our messaging, ideally, should be constructed in such a way to take this into account and not assume that everyone is at the same phase at the same time.

    Very interesting, thanks for passing it along!

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About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.