Social Media & Emergency Response Lessons from a Pioneer

In Case of Emergency, Read Blog  creator, John Solomon, recently conducted an interview with Los Angeles Fire Department Public Information Officer, Brian Humphrey . Humphrey is a pioneer in the integration of social media with emergency preparedness and response. His remarks  underscore the power of social media to avert a disaster.

From practical experience, Officer Humphrey offers some important lessons for emergency response agencies:

1. Emergency response agencies need to get involved in social media. “Get in the pool…Listen. Absorb the information around you.” 

Social media networks can act as critical listening posts for emergency response agencies.  Joining such networks and monitoring them for key words during key events -- and providing timely information through social networks -- can help prevent a crisis.

2. Understand that social media is a force multiplier. “It allows you to hear over a broader area. It helps you filter the information. As an agency, it helps you expand your information beyond the physical borders of your domain.” 

Identifying reliable social network sources and influencers can help an agency spot relevant information and communicate preparedness messaging quickly and well beyond an agency's traditional communication network.

3. Listen for the beginning of a crisis and respond vigorously the moment you hear one developing.  Social network messaging can provide early warning of  a crisis, whether it  is the beginning of a sense of panic during a large public event, or news of any of variety facts where the sheer volume or breadth of such facts may suggest a crisis may soon be at hand.  Providing swift, credible information addressing the potential crisis through social networks may help avert a crisis or lessen its magnitude.

4. Communicate in a manner that the public wants, i.e., through social networks.  Social network messaging has become a primary means of communication, both as a place for communicating as well as looking for information.  Providing information through social networks increases the likelihood the information will be heard and shared in a timely network.  An added benefit is that social network users are quick to share important news to members of their own network.

5. Make your messaging “hyperlocal” and relevant to your audience.  By participating in social media before a crisis arises, emergency agencies can identify social media "influencers" who can help target information so it is shared with those most likely to benefit from receiving the information.

6. Elected and appointed leaders need to understand the importance of social media. “One of the biggest challenges we have is with our elected leaders and appointed leaders in helping them understand as well.” 

Social network participation requires a commitment of resources, from time, talent, and training.  An understanding by elected and appointed leaders of the role social media can play in a crisis is central to achieving a commitment of resources to effectively participate in such networks and to provide the authority necessary to communicate critical information. 

Asked what he might say to officials skeptical about social media, Humphrey offered a somber, real-world comparison that goes to the heart of the pivotal role social media can play in averting a crisis. Humphrey explained:

A brief while ago, 19 people died in a festival in Germany  when there was a stampede at a rave or a music festival. We had a potential for such a situation in Los Angeles. More than 100,000 people gathered for a rave. We were monitoring social media and began to see panic-type situation ensuing. We immediately inserted messages into social media that were repeated time and again to many of the 100,000 people there Now, I can’t say for certain that those people there didn’t stampede or have a problem (as a result of the social media messaging they were receiving), but I know that there was no panic because they were getting official information from the source in the manner they wanted it.

The stark comparison offered by Officer Humphrey between two major events, one that ended in tradegy and the other that was completed safely, should not be missed by public safety officials:  the vigorous use of social network monitoring and messaging in one prevented panic when public safety officials noted social networking messaging suggesting the beginning of panic, with public officials then inserting their own sustained messaging through social networks.  As modes of communication change in fundamental ways, so must the manner in which emergency agencies communicate.

Offering a final thought on the integration of social media with emergency preparedness and response, Humphrey noted: “If it works in LA, it can work in your town too.”

For more on Crisis Social Media, please follow:


Related posts:
LAFD - Social Media and Emergency - Twitter
10 Reasons Social Media Is Important in a Real Crisis


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