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Social Media in Today’s Emergency Service

It is not all about tweeting!

If you tweet in the forest and no one is following you, does it make an impact? Or is it a real Tweet? Social media, smart phones, “connected generation” and many more descriptions are thrown around in the emergency service network nowadays. But flooding a community with too much information may cause confusion.

Before you say what does this grey haired old bloke know? Let me give you a background; I have observed and supported the rise and rise of social media in our industry; I currently have three Twitter sites and two Facebook sites; I administer two web sites and I work with a USA firm on social media monitoring software. On top of all that I have just released an app designed to allow emergency service workers to log their careers , the incidents they attend, the training they do and their service record (www.Impactlog.net). So yep, I play in this world. It is not just the young that have embraced social media!

At the last count in Australia, there were 95 formal twitter sites dealing with warnings and information, at least 62 Facebook sites from agencies and hundreds, if not thousands of peripheral sites from the local brigade/unit and individuals posting, as well as those blogging about anything and everything. For example: NSW Rural Fire Service (@NSWRFS); NSW Police (@nswpolice); Victorian Police (@VictoriaPolice); Queensland Police (@QPSmedia); Western Australia Police (@WA_Police); South Australian Police (@SAPoliceNews); Australian Government’s travel advisory (@smartraveller); the Department of Health (@healthgovau); Fire & Rescue NSW (@FRNSW); Country Fire Service South Australia (@CFSAlerts); the City of Brisbane (@brisbanecityqld); City of Sydney (@CityofSydney); the Australian Red Cross (@RedCrossAU); and private providers (@couldyoucope).

There is no doubt that information is power and therefore the more information we give out the more empowered the community we protect feel and are. However, flooding a community with too much information may cause confusion. Let us look at the world of twitter and Facebook, as they are still the most popular at this time.

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Social media statistics Australia-June 2014 report estimates that there are over 2.5million active Australian users of Twitter that is about 10.5 percent of Australia’s population. If I take out the 0 to nine-year-olds (2.8 million) and the 70-plus-year-olds (two million), as they have the lowest take up of Twitter, we still only get to 13.3 percent. If I do the same sums for Facebook I get a very different profile. Facebook has 13.2 million users, which is a massive 70 percent of the population aged between nine and 70. Apologies to the over 70s Facebook users of which, anecdotally, there are many but data is scarce.

On these figures you would think that you would be able to warn the community of a pending disaster, and this is the simplistic approach taken by many that are not involved with the detail of social media. “I have tweeted and put a posting on Facebook now the community is informed!”

But there are problems with this approach:

  1. Active Twitter users could be following between 500 and 2000 fellow twitterers, which means a constant stream of tweets coming through their smart phone all day and all night; an emergency tweet would stay on the first page for approximately 30 seconds. Even a tweet with an emergency alert will get over run in a very short time. The problem is that you cannot expect a tweet to be seen in a timely manner.
  2. Those that are following less than 500 are not active twitter users and only look in occasionally. You cannot expect a tweet to be seen in a timely manner.
  3. To continually monitor a Twitter site such as @CFSAlerts is not practical. What are the cues that will alert someone to be continually on line?
  4. Facebook has a far greater penetration but the usual application for a Facebook user is to interact with family and friends. Unless you have set up the site to monitor alerts in a particular neighbourhood you will be oblivious to what is going on. How do you get people to set their page up for alerts?
  5. Facebook is not the type of media that is watched on a continual basis by most users. Although there are 13 million users they mostly dip in and out during the day, which creates the same problems as above.

So when I see agencies saying they have put out hundreds of warnings I wonder: who is listening? Hence my opening sentence.

Do not get me wrong, I think these are fantastic tools and should be embraced by emergency services, and many agencies are setting up social media units, which is great to see.

My perception is that the infrastructure and effort is going into getting clear and concise timely messages out to the public. Fantastic first stage and, most if not all agencies are doing a great job in this field. Now let us concentrate on getting people to listen, and listen at the right time. After many years in disaster preparedness it
never ceases to amaze me when, after the event, people say “no one told us it (the disaster) was coming”.

The first issue is that we do not really know the actual number of people that are using social media effectively in a disaster or pending disaster; I could only find raw numbers of users in generic categories. We need base figures to start measuring how we are improving.

The second issue is how the general public use social media by various demographic groups so we can systematically target, instead of using the shot-gun approach and hoping to hit the spot.

The third is the opposite of push marketing (pushing out information). It is how we get the general public to pull information from the many sources they have at their disposal, in a timely manner. This push/pull process is critical for quality communication.

Last of all, the general public is receiving vital information on the ground before, during and after a disaster, and agencies should be using social media to collect this data for operational intelligence.

The first issue is not easily solved without a considerable research project and we do not only want to gather data on what is happening now, we also need a cost effective methodology to continually monitor. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC has two research clusters, “Communication and Warnings” as well as “Understanding and Measuring Social Resilience”. I hope that this base information will come from this research. Unfortunately this will be some time down the track and we cannot wait before the other issues are addressed.

Secondly, for targeted information, it is time to call in the experts We have many well- intentioned people in the emergency services and there are a number of well qualified social media experts but this does not measure up to the hundreds of people worldwide getting and building tools for large firms. The large marketing (not PR) firms stake their reputation on being up- to-date and having the best available research, on the best way to get messages across to separate market segments and, more importantly, on how to make them act (buy) on that information.

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This will be an expensive exercise (if it is not, then you have a second tier firm) and should be shared by a number of agencies, for example, a cluster of police agencies and/or fire agencies. The old way of everyone doing their own thing must be put aside because this is bigger than each and a benefit to all. I would like to think that industry and/or national bodies could organise this vital bit of marketing advice. Note that I did not call this research, because the research has been done for other markets; we are just using what the rest of the world uses.

The push/pull process may be refined by actions in the earlier paragraph. There has to be an acknowledgment that it is not about how many tweets you can send out, or how up-to-date/accurate the information is. I think this is recognised but, at the end of the day, we still report on how fast the information got out and how often it was sent, as well as how many different types of media was used.

So pushing we are good at, unfortunately the public is not as enthusiastic about pulling in information, so we have to help them, and we are. With the ability to personalise messages now – for example see this FEMA site (twitter.com/ FEMA/alerts) – we can assist the public to set up their devices to pull out the information that is relevant to the individual and his or her location.

The use of technology is not the only way this will happen; the public needs its hand held on how to set up their social media site. How often do we say “you can get information on Facebook” but we do not tell them that liking the site will give them direct information.

Then there are the features on social media that are imbedded in the settings or functions that are not normally used. Think, do you know how to set up a private Twitter list with your priority emergency information tweets? Do you know how to turn on the ‘tweet to my mobile phone’ feature? These two simple functions, if used by a member of the community we protect, allows them to pull information at a critical time and does not rely on them being on line when the warning comes through. This is the job of a social media department; find the features and educate the general public. Most users are only using a small proportion of the social software’s full functionality.

Then there is the use of social media by agencies to gain information instead of sending out information. During any activity on the streets today, whether it be a cute dog doing tricks, a racial rant in a bus or an earthquake, the first thing people do is get out their smart phone and start taking photos – unfortunately often before they call the emergency line. I do not have to tell you how important this information is to police and emergency services.

A photo of the early stages of a burning building will inform as to what equipment to send, where the fire started and the people on scene at that early stage, which may help police with arson inquiries. It can show direction and intensify of forest fires, how well communities are physically and physiologically prepared. You could even monitor the community’s attitude after a community meeting pre and post the fire. Helping to understand the community feeling during recovery may assist in greatly in dealing with their actual problem, instead of the perceived problem.

You will not do this with the traditional methods of listening to messages that are directed to you, the clutter will get in the way of quality information. Also they might not direct a complaint to you at all, but instead discuss it among their friends. Social media is a very public way of communicating whether it is photos or saying what you think. Large corporations use sophisticated software to scan all media for market information, not only that directed at them. The software is so clever it can suck social media from geographical areas ranging in size from a football ground to an entire country; it can analyse it in real time, pull out key words and display all photos taken while geo-location the exact location the photo was taken from. This software is now at a stage that agencies cannot afford not to have it. There are a number on the market, have a look at www.snaptrends.com to get a feel for what is available.

In summary, we have looked at the power of social media, and how it is now fully integrated in our day to day life. This adds to the public’s perception that they will get timely and accurate information when and where they want it. We have looked at the problems and some solutions as well as additional benefits that can be gained from this powerful tool. The underlying issue is that we are still on a steep learning curve and only just realising how truly powerful this not-so-new media is.

I have been asked to do a regular section in Asia Pacific Fire comparing different social media software programs, in particular comparing Apps that have been designed to assist in emergencies in order to show current best practice. Should you have any suggestions it would be appreciated. Feel free to contact me on neil@people-innovation.biz.

For further information, go to www. people-innovation.biz

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Asia Pacific Fire, Editor