"Obscurity of the situation is the rule. Seldom will one have exact information of the enemy… However to wait in tense situations for information is seldom a token of strong leadership."
-- Generals Warner von Fritsch and Ludwig Beck, Troop Leadership 1933
That quote captures what is the million dollar challenge for managers, continuity personnel, and emergency response authorities. How do you collect critical information in emergency situations? You know something has happened but not sure what. The phone is ringing off the hook. The news stories are buzzing a million words a minute. You know you can’t wait for the dust to settle but you aren’t sure where to go. You have to get that information on events yesterday. Your boss is pressuring you to have the answers. Millions in dollars and maybe lives are on the table depending on what happens. What’s a person to do? How can you find that magic answer that is going to save the day?
The answer lies in the subject that has been filling the news or occupying your kid’s day; social media. Of course the question is what is this social media? Social media is defined by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as user generated content, the blending of technology and social interaction with other users. This technology in many different formats gives every user the means to put out information to the greater world. This media is commonly known as Facebook, Twitter, Photo Bucket and scores of other sites.
This trend has been evolving over the past ten years or so. Newspapers recently were filled with various articles about social media. Those articles were about the Facebook IPO offerings. However that event did bring up the subject of social media in everyone’s mind. It showed how big of a thing this social media event is.
Social media seems to have grabbed hold of everything. Right now it is estimated that there are 140 million active Twitter users in the world and over 500 total users across the world. Facebook has been estimated as having 173 million US users and 835.5 million worldwide. That amounts to 1 in 13 people on the earth. An estimated 90 percent of US Internet users also use Facebook. Two hundred and fifty million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. A 2010 PEW Research study said that two-thirds of all Americans use the Internet. Now people have dual access to the Internet. Forty percent of those on the Internet also have access to the Internet from their smart mobile phones. This gives people an almost 24/7 degree of access to get information from the web about various important things like where are the open restaurants and it allows something else. Now people have the capability to put out information to the masses about open restaurants and tons of other things.
The frequency of this trend is accelerating upward, unlike the Facebook stock price. According to the Indianapolis Star, Twitter handled 1.8 million tweets on Election Day in 2008. Nowadays the Twitter gets that many tweets every eight minutes. The trends for Facebook users have only gone up year after year. The US increase averages 7 to 8 percent. The world increase for Facebook users shows much the same thing. Facebook has been experiencing a high percentage of growth, double digits usually for the past several years.
This growth in Facebook and Twitter isn’t for nothing. People are putting out information onto the Internet for their friends and the whole world to see. Yes, frequently this information is nonsense things like celebrity sightings and comments about what the sender had for lunch. At times you can learn more important things too. Nowadays you can learn just about anything you want on the Internet and especially form the social media. Various entities in the world are tuning in on this trend.
Corporations are using this new development for their benefit. Many large corporations like Home Depot monitor various social media outlets to take care of their customer service issues. I have heard of people that complain about their service at a certain store and they get a call, email, or tweet back from the corporation to see what they can do to correct things. These same corporations are using social media to advertise their product or services. That trend is what is fueling Facebook growth. Those boxes on the right of the Facebook screen are for scores of businesses Facebook things you would have an interest in. Google has also jumped onto this bandwagon to in much the same way. The social media companies are using their technology and web sites to find specific markets. Then they turn around and sell them to whoever wants to use this information. Groups or corporations who purchased that information then in turn can reach very specific audiences in terms of interest, age, sex or whatever. This has put more of an emphasis on the industry than what we have seen in the past.
The process of osmosis is at work with social media too. The trend is influencing how people think and act. That medium has changed business and communication methods for both people and organizations. Now some people now use social media to take the place of the old fashion screaming or making phone calls. The airwaves and the Internet is full of all kinds of information about misc. events around people. Students on the campus of The Virginia Tech in 2007 spread the word on social media to fellow students about an active shooter on campus who was shooting people way before the TV news had the story. The same thing occurred in the 2007 Southern California wildfires. The local CERT (Citizen Emergency Response Team) in the Hurricane Gustav used social media to alert people about impending danger from the hurricane. People in New York learned about the Washington DC recent earthquake before they felt the tremors.
This trend goes back the other way too. Affected people use social media to convey requests or help back out from their location to whom ever. Stranded people in both the Japanese Tsunami and the tornado in Joplin tweeted requests for help to emergency responders or anyone else who might hear. A recent Red Cross study of people here in the US said that 44 percent would use social media as a backup 911 call if necessary. People in recent surveys said they use social media to collect information on everything like how they use to watch TV in years gone by.
These new developments are changing how organizations train for emergencies. FEMA is recommending that the local community CERTs receive training in social media monitoring. The US Army has really jumped on board in a big way. They are testing the idea of making every soldier a sensor. Soldiers are issued smart phones. Each of these phones has various phone applications to help the soldier collect information and rely it back. The theory is to use social media on smart phones to collect more information and collect the right kind of information to win the battle. This is part of a plan to bring in the right information to the right decision maker from the ground level. Various corporations and other groups now use social media through specially launched special applications or web sites to bring in that information to the right eyes. The US Marine Corps used social media information from the scene to help plan their response efforts to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. They used this social media information to map the damage from the earthquake; see the extent of damage and need from that.
This trend is reaching down to the local level too. It is changing how the public expects government should react in emergencies. That recent Red Cross study on social media said that eighty percent felt that emergency response organizations should monitor social media regularly for replies for help. The National Red Cross Chapter has started a virtual emergency operations center because of that survey. Local agencies like the Chicago PD, or Department of Homeland Security have expanded their 911 dispatch center to take in information from social media too.
Now, I know everyone is asking that information is nice but how do I bring it from the 10,000 foot level to me at ground level. Social media can help you and enhance operations at minimal costs. Social media can help you collect information from the field, communicate to the public, communicate to your staff , and communicate to your critical stakeholders. All of this contributes through practice and training to increase your situational awareness of the environment around you. That information from your situational awareness helps you make smarter decisions in the midst of the chaos from the event.
Many of an emergency organization have developed Facebook pages. FEMA and the Red Cross have both Twitter accounts and Facebook pages they aggressively use to put out their message for the public on a daily basis. It is hoped the daily flow will build habits in their clientele to go their first in times of emergencies. Several other non-government emergency entities also have done the same thing like the phone company Sprint. I recently got in touch with them about emergency services they offered all through their Facebook page. These are all great ways to put out your communications to the public.
Social media can help you collect information from your staff in emergencies. There are several almost hidden sites and tools that help you do this. Google has a host of options that go along with any free email account. Any user has access to these options. Users can set up quick mini-web sites to put out information. Users can utilize Google forms to collect information from multiple users who might be spread out over hundreds or thousands of miles. I have used Google spreadsheets very effectively to collect information in exercises. The program allows you to create input forms which feed information into spreadsheets. Those sheets serve as a central collection point of information. There are several other web sites that do much the same thing in different ways. All of that is important only if you know what to ask from your users in the field. If you are not careful a person could be flooded with information, rendering your project useless. It would become like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Those methods have an additional advantage too. The standard practice in drills or real world events is to just send emails back and forth with the critical information. People tend to want to attach videos and pictures to these emails too. Modern day smart phones give almost everyone that capability nowadays. As theses emails go back and forth throughout the organization they put enormous weight on the email system. Over time this weight becomes overwhelming. Your system will collapse very quickly.
Social media can really be great enhancers for situational awareness. They are like giant libraries floating out there. A person just needs to know how to use this new dewy decimal system to get what you want.
Situational awareness is the ability to identify process and comprehend critical elements of an incident or situation. Just a few years ago this capacity was only available to governments. Now individuals or organizations can use various tools and harvest reams of information from the outside world. This information comes from people who have this information and want to share it. You might be surprised at what is out there. News reports say that the SEAL raid to get Bin Laden was uncovered by a neighbor to Bin Laden before anyone else in the world. He tweeted that a helicopter was over his neighbor’s house with some loud bangs and explosions. The key becomes finding what you want.
Social media has this information within its bowels in all forms, video, text, pictures, and audio. It can come from social media but also can come from the standard web. This information can be from multiple sources. Some of it like Bin Laden’s neighbor can come from front line witnesses. Others can come from people who have an interest in the subject and want to pass it on to others who have the same interest as them. Almost all media nowadays put their products out on a web site. This includes not only what you expect, newspapers but also radio and TV stories are out there on the net. People can easily pass on the URL via Twitter from that story which might show up on a Google search or might be item 100,000 on the search. The latest trend is where sites post social media remarks against a map to gain a geographic perspective.
Other critical information is out there on the web for the taking. Many city traffic cameras are on line. Anyone can log in and see what the traffic is in that town in that intersection. You can get a visual of the area you want from these traffic cameras. Many big cities put their fire and police calls out there on the web. You can hear from official sources what is going on. During the Washington DC earthquake I used social media to collect a lot of information about the event. The Washington Police broadcast their dispatch calls on line. I listened to officers tell dispatchers that buildings were not knocked down. The absence of ambulance calls told me not a lot of people were hurt. I tuned in to the Washington DC traffic cameras. That gave me a visual of almost all of DC. Those camera shots told me buildings were still up. I did all of this in 15 minutes while the phone lines coming out of Washington were jammed with people trying to phone home.
I have used these techniques quite extensively to build my skills on misc. news stories that pop up. I have used Twitter search pages to find information on these stories hours before the local media broadcasts the story. One time I picked up a URL from a MD TV station that broadcast a story about a supposed bomb in a MD State Office building in the raw from the scene to the station .
A critical first step is knowing what you want to know. If you aren’t focused the volume of information can be overwhelming. Then you create both training programs to train personnel to pass on information and develop ways to look for what you want. Then you can focus your efforts to get the right information. The use of the right key words of hash tags will help you get what you want. Also the knowledge of the various web sites that might help you find what you want will help out.
This flow of information creates a new challenge. You have to gauge the validity of your sources. Anyone can get on and say anything. That may or may not mean they know what is going on. The sheer volume will be overwhelming. That will make it very hard to use the information. Staff will have to develop methods to analyze this information quickly. Initial reports from the scenes of emergencies tend to be wrong to varying degrees. The perspective of the author vs. time of the report has to be considered. Then the inflow has to be crunched, produced and put out for audience
The best use of this technology is by a watch or EOC officer. This person’s challenge is to do a couple of things. They will have to find ways to detect incidents as quickly as possible, hopefully before the news. They tend to be the last on the block to find out what is going on. The use of indicators might help this process. The information rarely comes in just one report. It will roll in through multiple sources at various times. Then people have to condense the messages and summarize the information. There has to be a way to put a priority on the right message. Also you have to keep track of what is going on. During the Japanese Tsunami requests for aid were repeated over and over again. That led to aid going to the same address over and over again.
So there is hope out there in these budget restrain times to provide great situational awareness. A person just has to learn how to use the free stuff already. That probably will require a change in mindset which is difficult, but possible.
Thomas Magee is GSA regional emergency coordinator for Region 6 out of Kansas City. His duties include managing the regional agency continuity of operations program and coordinating regional activities in support of FEMA. A veteran of both Iraq and Operation Desert Storm, Magee is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve where he serves as an instructor in their intermediate learning experience course. Magee is a graduate of University of Kansas with a bachelor's degree in business administration and from the University of Missouri at Kansas City with a master's degree in public administration.