Are you prepared? The usefulness and the potential pitfalls of social media during large-scale emergencies.

By Fred Durso, Jr.

For NFPA Journal

SOCIETY’S INSATIABLE HUNGER for immediate information, especially during emergencies, can sometimes make the TV and radio seem like artifacts of a bygone era. Even the Web is regarded by some as insufficiently responsive. These days, more and more people — especially if they’re young and tech-savvy — rely on social media during a crisis, for better or worse. They use Twitter to tweet rushed dispatches to their friends and log on to Facebook for resources and updates. Some of the information they share is spot-on accurate. Some is complete fiction. Much of it resides somewhere in between.

The reach and impact of these tools — along with YouTube, blogs, and other channels — was apparent in New York City during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Following the battering it received at the hands of Hurricane Irene in 2011, the city decided to bolster its social media channels to improve information sharing before and during emergencies. The effort attracted five million followers even before Sandy’s arrival. The city also established a task force of “social media rock stars” from various city agencies to develop emergency protocol procedures for various social media channels.

As Sandy rolled in, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office closely monitored social media chatter. Daily reports summarizing this information made their way across departments and agencies. Some of the information was very good; Facebook and YouTube highlighted crucial points from official news conferences, and Twitter provided near-immediate responses to questions from residents unable to access the city’s information hotline. The city’s efforts led to an astronomical response: New York’s total digital reach following the storm was more than 2.7 million people, the press conference videos were watched nearly a million times, had 16 million page views, and the city’s Facebook page had a reach of more than 320,000 people, according to “Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy,” a report produced in 2013 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

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