How Municipalities Should Integrate Social Media Into Disaster Planning

This last Thanksgiving was marred by the horrible deaths of over 170 victims at Mumbai’s terrorist attack. If you weren’t watching, social media played a part in helping –and hurting– the event. First hand accounts were published on twitter, including pictures of terrorists in action, in fact Forbes called this Mumbai: Twitter’s Moment. Cities, authorities, states, and governments should have a social media plan in place to prepare for disasters of all sorts.

[Social tools allow both true and false information to be rapidly communicated from sources in real time from anyone using a mobile device. During disasters this both enables and detracts emergency response.]

Social Tools Pervasive
Social Technographics research indicates that these social tools are readily available and are being adopted in US, as well as other cultures. Any person connected to the internet, or has a mobile device has the ability to share information as well as scan and learn from their network, take for example this lawyer who used his blackberry to transmit emails while under siege in Mumbai.

Social Tools Spread Word of Mouth, both Good and Bad We’ve multiple accounts how individuals have used blogs, video, and now Twitter to rapidly spread information during a crises, from earthquakes in China, to Fires in L.A., to Hurricanes in the South, and now terrorist attacks in India. A hundred years ago, we would never imagine how information could spread so quickly. These tools are powerful, they allow anyone to share –and hear– information transmitted from others in real time from anywhere. We learned that both true and false information was being spread from these tools, in fact for days after this Mubai event rumors were still being settled. In fact, one of the concerns in this Mumai attack is that rumors were quickly spreading, and there was no central source to verify. In some cases, conversations in Twitter (and even the retweet) can influence press, and therefore spread information to other locations impacting how emergency services could react.

These Tools Enhance Existing Human Behaviors Gossip, the need to connect, and communication are natural human reactions during a crises. Like a scene at a freeway car crash, most want to know what’s happening and in the excitement, jump in to monitor and participate. Jennifer Leggio indicates that the good and bad of humans quickly show on these tools –with mixed reactions. Amy Gahran provides us with why and how citizen journalists should react and behave.

Assume Terrorists Are Using Social Tools We learned that the Mumbai terrorists were using Blackberry’s to communicate and monitor. This 10 man crack commando team was able to cause extensive havoc for 3 days. They were trained, funded, and had intelligence. Just as we should expect they are monitoring the police airways and public tv stations, we learned they were monitoring online the “police responses on the internet”. It’s so very easy to do, as people were tagging content #mumbai and it’s easily searchable by Twitter.

[Local governments, authorities, and response teams should understand how these social tools work, learn how to integrate into disaster response, and evaluate how they will use them during an emergency]

How Municipalities Should Integrate Social Media Into Disaster Planning Therefore, municipalities should learn from this tragic event, in order to understand, help reduce risk, and take advantage of the medium before an event happens.

1 Enhance Communication Plans: First of all, just as municipalities have an existing communication plan (often a press statement from police or authorities to media) understand how to repurpose these messages and communication on social tools.

2 Experiment and Build a Base: Municipalities should experiment with the tools as we learned the Department of Homeland Security is understanding how to use these tools for disasters, so cities should also start to monitor, then experiment. Just as we saw with Motrin moms, they had no base to stand on to defend themselves in Twitter –the same falls true for any ruling body. Having a platform in advance provides benefits, as those who participate have power.

3 Educate, Train, and build Awareness Before an Event. Governing bodies often have mock emergency response trials, now, start to incorporate these tools into the planning process. You’ll have to indicate to the world what is an official channel, where people should go for news, and how each authority plans to respond using these tools. These tools can help educate citizens how to prepare for disasters, where to go for help, how to develop a family crises plan, and even basic life saving medical techniques.

4 Develop a Crisis plan: It’s far to bold to suggest that each governing body use these tools during an emergency. Perhaps they are focused on keeping information quiet in order to save lives, are unaware of what the truth is, or simply don’t have the resources. Even so, municipalities should expect information to rapidly spread amongst those witnessing the tragedy, and commented by others. Likely, like a triage plan, a similar plan for social media should be created depending on the type of disaster occurring.

5 Use These Tools To Rebuild: Even if the municipality chooses not to participate during the crises, these tools can help rebuild after the tragedy. The Red Cross has been using blogs, Facebook causes, twitter, and a variety of other tools to help spread awareness to drive donations, and to get people involved.

If you have other suggestions to help municipalities with understand and use these tools to their benefit, leave a comment below.

30 Replies to “How Municipalities Should Integrate Social Media Into Disaster Planning”

  1. Spot on post, these are the tools that have the ability to replace the antiquated “Emergency Broadcasting System” (known to all of us for those annoying 60 second tone on the TV at 3AM).

    This is an important enough function that it should not be left to municipalities to implement. In my opinion, this should be mandated by the federal government that ALL municipalities have a plan in place taking advantage of this nextgen toolchest that we have provided them with.

    From a Twitter perspective, this is a business model that I outlined for them 6 months ago (on my blog). They should be at the forefront of providing a platform that municipalities can build on.

  2. Excellent post, Jeremiah. The planning you recommend is gradually happening. Unfortunately, there is still resistance that is mostly based, I think, on the difficulty of integrating decentralized social media with secure command-and-control based communications such as those needed by first responders. It’s going to take a massive disaster to finally overcome this type of resistance.

  3. Smaller countries such as Singapore should be able to initiate these strategies easily. The problem is the lack of awareness of such tools in high-density population centers like Singapore where the busy lifestyle of the masses prevent them from appreciating the merits of Tweets and other social networking tools.

    Awareness of the many tools today is crucial in building this next communication foundation to meet the increasingly connected world we’re living in.

  4. Institute for the Future and Art Center Pasadena teamed up to create After Shock, a massively multiplayer forecasting game that asks the masses to use social media to explain what is going on and what they are doing in the event of a disaster. Many municipalities, local and state agencies are participating in the project. Thanks for a great post, Jeremiah!

  5. Great post! Here in Iowa we used social media for disaster recovery during the floods over the summer. I launched which featured updates from twitter, flickr, youtube, and blogs.

  6. Interesting, timely, and useful post, Jeremiah…especially the tips for Municipalities.

    I think the great hurdle for social media, tho, is to make it as dependable as a utility. After all, our nightmare would be hearing “Please excuse us, our servers our down, we’re working on it” when we call 911.

    Specific to last week’s attack, I wrote a post about the speed and angles of “citizen journalists” in Mumbai. See my post at

  7. This is precisely the message we are hoping to get across when a co-worker and I present at the Public Health Preparedness Summit this February. Our session is on Social Media and Emergency Preparedness.

    One of the major questions is whether information from official and unofficial sources should be aggregated or disseminated via different means. If people are using social media tools organically to learn more, should ‘official’ sources use the same means? How do we separate the noise from the signal?

  8. To Dennis’ point above, I would add that one of the key challenges we find in working with public institutions or those who are tied very closely to government from a regulatory standpoint is the lack of, and need for, communication cohesion among the various sub-organizations who are responsible for emergency response – fire, police, health units, various regulatory entities, and the politicians themselves.

    While one imperative is clearly to communicate quickly in times of crisis. The last thing you want (as has been shown in the most recent case of the Mumbai bombings) is to have different departments and agencies communicating mixed messages. Centralized command and control of information is a must, yet very hard to do.

    Added to that is the need to better integrate social media into existing emergency response mechanisms such as the Incident Response System to which most large government departments and organizations subscribe for their emergency planning.

    While I agree wholeheartedly in the importance of social media integration, and counsel clients as such, organizations such as municipalities need to get their internal house in order first, and be committed to adapting their current structures to incorporate these new strategies, before any real traction is likely to take place.

    Communicators should also take care in over-stepping their bounds from more traditional reputation-based communications (which is the primary topic of blogs such as this) into the operational sphere of communications such as evacuation notices and other mass alerts, as they are two very different activities requiring very different skillsets.

    Overall, a timely and important post. Cheers.

  9. I really like the Twitter 999 idea. That’s something that could be easily adopted. I feel its important to recognize that this shouldn’t be just about twitter but all social technologies including more innovative ways to use SMS. I’d love to have a 999 iPhone app that serves as an emergency button for example.

    Interestingly, when I discussed the use of social media in the context of the crisis on my blog I got feedback that I was trivializing the horrible Mumbai attacks.

  10. A friend’s company develops and sells IVR (interactive voice response) systems to municipal 911 call centers. They can target geographically and dial every number within a geo-targeted zone. They also send SMS and email. You can input street addresses or simply circle an area on a map. It is also used by school systems, universities etc. For anything from a hostage situation to a snow day.

  11. Great way of taking a chilling fact–terrorists using social media tools to coordinate deadly attacks–and advocating the positive and preventive use of Twitter. I’m surprised it’s not being used for disaster preparedness in more cases.

  12. The trouble I find with municipalities trying to get involved with social media apps for emergency response / notification is how these are all passive networks. Sure, some people will tweet about events in an emergency, but it’s up to everyone else in the area to see those tweets and respond.

    In an emergency such as these Mumbai attacks, having an alert system where local officials could send out safety instructions to all registered contact points at once would be paramount. Beyond social media it seems to me that more organizations should maintain a database of contact points (phone, email, txt) for their customers/residents. This way if an immediate response is needed they can issue a status alert to the relevant section of their database and keep more people safe.

    No doubt I’m sure many meetings will ensue on how to ‘use’ social media as a tool for reaching the public, but these tools are just too passive and not as widely available to suggest using them as effective notification systems.

  13. Mumbai attacks are the real revelation. It™s good to see citizens on the
    streets at this massive scale. However, we™ll have to see how long we,
    the common citizens, can stick together and find concrete solutions to
    the immediate problems. Please check the video to see the reactions.

  14. Very good article; I will treat it as a standard reference in discussion on social media as well as on disaster prevention and mitigation. The problem is less the technology. As I have pointed out in my blog posting of yesterday, social change has become much slower that technological change. We are talking about agencies and authorities which are notorious for being conservative and change resistant. So, introducing technologies is certainly not sufficient; this is a real change project. Read more about it at

    By the way, I see that you are in San Francisco. I know a change manager at SF Bart. If you are interested in discussion your concepts with him, I am more than happy to put you in contact.


  15. Hi Jeremiah,

    I’m so glad to see that you are writing about this! There is indeed a growing level of interest among government leaders at all levels – from locals to federal officials – but a great deal of resistance coupled with a lack of awareness on new social media. The CDC – National Center for Health Marketing is perhaps the group furthest in front on integrating these new technologies and a lone public information officer at the LA Fire Dept continues to sound the sirens, encouraging emergency managers to make use of new tools that are free to them.

    This stream of comments echo the findings we have from our research on emergency management, disasters, and social media. I’m encouraged to see that there are others who are writing about these issues. Read more about this research at CU Boulder at

  16. J
    You should be interviewed on Smart City radio on this topic – and speak at the national league of cities conference… this topic might scare more city councils and mayors into using more (some!?) social media.
    It took five years to convince some municipalities to send out a newsletter, let alone an opt-in-by specific topic newsletter… no not a blog subscription or online citizen polling or comments on hot topics… no online social network for the town… only 3 I know are doing that….

    sometimes citizens organize around and for a city event using social media and then the mayor takes credit for using social media…

  17. Our challenge as institutions & agencies in this, as with use of social media for general communications, is staffing, both on the front end and then during the actual incident.

    We have to spend time NOW building presence and trust in our communication channels, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or anything else. If we don’t put money in the bank, it won’t be there to draw on when we need it (perhaps an unfortunate analogy given the economy :D).

    Additionally there will always be the question of reach and participation in any given network. I’ve set up @WSUSpokane as a Twitter account for my campus and will be seeking to get students, staff, faculty and others to follow. But if they’re not on Twitter, that’s not the right channel in an emergency.

    We have the 3M system that enables us to push both voice and text messages to specified groups. It’s only as good as the data people provide us, but probably still the most direct channel we will have for some time to come. As we remind people to update that info, we’ll also let them know they can follow us on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook.

    We have a campus alert web page we can highlight on the home page, recorded message on a campus alert phone line, and the ability to put a message out through the web portal that people use to access grades, payroll info, etc. We utilized all these when we had severe snow in Jan/Feb 2008 and suspended classes.

    With Twitter & Facebook, that’s two more places I have to update when I’m working my emergency comm checklist (although I’ll set Twitter to feed FB, saving at least one step). Back to the need for staff….


  18. I think the great hurdle for social media, tho, is to make it as dependable as a utility

    this should be mandated by the federal government that ALL municipalities have a plan in place taking advantage of this nextgen toolchest that we have provided them with.

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