Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on January 7, 2014.

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).

While writing about social media and emergency preparedness, NFPA Journal staff writer Fred Durso discovered that if you're prepared for a zombie apocalypse you're prepared for anything.

But there were problems, too. Social media helped spread misinformation during and after the storm, including reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been deluged by three feet of water. Social channels disseminated a doctored photograph of a massive wave smacking into the Statue of Liberty — a still from the 2004 disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow" — that had been made into a screenshot from a local news "broadcast." Yet another widely circulated—and inaccurate — image depicted sharks swimming through the flooded lobby of a building.

To correct some of the wrongs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established a "Hurricane Sandy Rumor Control" website; false or misleading information circulating on social media — wrong locations of shelters and bridge failures, among others — were posted alongside accurate information. "The public, media, and digital volunteers, both ad hoc and official, enhanced these efforts organically by seeking out inaccurate photos and rumors and locating, sharing, and disseminating accurate information," according to the DHS "Lessons Learned" report. Despite those efforts, the misinformation circulated during Sandy — and the larger, more troubling sense that it might be difficult to determine in general what was true and what was not — only upped the confusion and fear around an already potentially catastrophic event.

The power of social media — or simply "social" to the cognoscenti — is its ability to disseminate shareable information while permitting user feedback, all at speeds approaching instantaneous. To balance the drawbacks of social media with its vast potential — see "#DoubleEdgedSword" — NFPA and other organizations are developing improved guidance for social media use during emergencies while leveraging its benefits throughout an event.

At the Red Cross, for example, monitoring social media platforms is now a 24/7 operation. The humanitarian organization has partnered with computer giant Dell to create what it calls a national "digital operations center" that disseminates safety information and gathers crucial online data from social media users before and during national incidents. FEMA has vowed to use social media during all stages of a disaster. DHS has enacted an online forum for emergency responders to share their insights on social media use. At NFPA, a task group representing the public and private sectors is currently discussing how the 2016 edition of NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, should address social media.

NFPA has already witnessed the advantages of effective social media use. (See "#ExpandingItsReach.") For instance, its wildfire safety blog, Fire Break, was an invaluable tool for residents and safety personnel seeking information during the 2013 Black Forest Fire, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. The blog included information on wildfire mitigation tactics, updates on the fire’s spread, and more.

"If social media is able to push out emergency information to critical audiences, we have to be able to use all of these tools," says Jo Robertson, chair of the NFPA 1600 Social Media Task Group and director of crisis preparedness for the chemical company Arkema. "Social media use is a reality. We all have to get past the notion that this is something we can ignore." 


Emergencies + beyond: How NFPA is spreading safety through social media

For NFPA, social media has become a valuable tool in its emergency preparedness and management efforts. In advance of some recent high-profile storms — Superstorm Sandy and Hurricanes Isaac and Irene, to name a few — NFPA populated its blogs with tips on topics such as emergency generator use and emergency supply kits. Twitter and Facebook also disseminated the information to NFPA’s army of followers.

"Army" is no overstatement. To date, NFPA has amassed nearly 67,000 fans on its three Facebook pages and attracted more than 40,000 Twitter followers through its four Twitter accounts. It has uploaded more than 700 videos on YouTube, which have received more than 2.8 million views. It has created eight blogs on a variety of topics, and NFPA pages have also been established on Pinterest and Google+. The organization also has more than 56,000 followers on its various LinkedIn sites.

These tools aid the spread of NFPA’s safety messages, including emergency information, in a variety of ways. "This information already exists on NFPA’s website, and we use social media to highlight it," says Lauren Backstrom, NFPA’s social media manager. "A safety tip might go out to five or six different channels in one day. A huge number of people see it and share it."

These safety tips, according to Backstrom, are typically the most shared or retweeted items. Backstrom keeps the posts or tweets succinct — "make sure you have a three-day supply of ready-to-eat food during an emergency" — and then links to NFPA’s website or safety tip sheets on that topic.

Partnering with some major players has also aided the spread of messages, including items on emergency preparedness and management. NFPA has linked up with LEGO, Home Depot, Domino’s Pizza, State Farm, and other companies for various educational endeavors. NFPA partners with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) for its Put a Freeze On Winter Fires initiative,, and shares NFPA reports, tips, videos, and safety quizzes on USFA’s social media channels.

"Social media is most successful when you have people sharing information and pushing it out further into their own audiences," says Backstrom. "Lots of our partners have these enormous audiences. It’s useful for us because these people may not know about NFPA, so we’ve been working with these companies that have these audiences to reach more people."

— Fred Durso, Jr.

Pros and cons
The data seem to support Robertson’s stance. The Red Cross recently polled the general public and concluded that participation in online communities and social forums remained steady nationwide in 2012, with nearly half of all respondents using these channels. While TV news and radio reports remain the primary sources for information during emergencies — safety experts agree that battery-powered radios remain vital tools, especially when electronic devices can’t charge or operate during power outages — the use of social media during these events is on the rise, the poll found, and Americans have higher expectations for it. "Emergency social users," as the poll’s report calls them, are increasingly likely to take safety or preparedness actions mentioned in social networks. Forty percent of them — a 16 percent increase compared with 2011 poll results — have used these channels to inform their online network that they are safe, and 76 percent — up from 68 percent in 2011 — expect help from emergency response agencies within three hours of posting a request via social media.


Respondents also felt that local emergency response organizations should constantly monitor their online properties for emergency requests — tweets identifying power outages or downed trees during a storm, for example — but many doubt they are doing so. This mistrust is one of the disadvantages of social media use outlined in the 2012 Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Manual developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (See "#GettingEngaged" for recommendations on social media use.) Other drawbacks include the ease and speed with which misinformation can be spread, the constant need for rumor control, the personnel and technology requirements necessary to monitor these channels, and the challenge of reaching audiences unfamiliar with posting or tweeting. More alarming is the malicious use of social media by pranksters or terrorists to thwart or disrupt response efforts, a concern outlined in the 2011 report "Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations," prepared by the Congressional Research Service for members and committees of Congress.


Tips on building a strong online presence before and during an emergency

With all of the social media platforms out there, how do you develop an effective emergency preparedness and response strategy? One thing is certain: Waiting until a disaster actually hits to set up a Twitter or Facebook account may be of little benefit to your audience.

Here are other recommendations from the 2012 edition of the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Manual developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pre-crisis Stay informed about new social media platforms, and be aware of what people are using. Recognize where the largest audiences reside and put resources where they exist.

Use social media in daily communication activities. To build trust, online discussions with individuals should be taking place prior to an emergency. Don’t wait until a crisis.

Follow and share messages with credible sources. By cross-posting and retweeting messages among partner organizations, a coalition of credible sources is established and more individuals are reached through shared networks.

Determine social media engagement as part of risk and crisis management policies and approaches. Incorporating social media into a crisis communication plan ensures that the tools will be analyzed and tested before the crisis.

During a crisis
Join the conversation, help manage rumors by responding to misinformation, and determine the best channels to reach segmented audiences. Reaching specific audiences with a key message is a foundation of targeted communication.

Check all information for accuracy and respond honestly to questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it is better to communicate the uncertainty of the situation and explain what you are doing to find out the answer than to answer incorrectly or not answer at all.

Social media is interpersonal communication and should allow for human interaction and emotional support, which are important to individuals dealing with a crisis.

Ask for help and provide direction. Giving people something meaningful to do in a response to a crisis helps them make sense of the situation. The public can provide essential information, especially if they are directly affected by an event. If there are actions the public can take to reduce risks or assist the recovery effort, social media can spread the word by cross-posting, retweeting, or forwarding information.

Social media isn’t a solution to all communication problems. The power to communicate remains with the behaviors of the communicating organization and the quality content they produce, not the technology. Social media is not a best practice for crisis and emergency risk communication, but rather a tool to help the public follow best practices.

Download the manual at Chapter 9 pertains to social media use.

— Fred Durso, Jr.

The fire service has its own concerns, says Lauren Backstrom, NFPA’s social media manager. Backstrom oversees NFPA’s online and social platforms, including an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+. She has given a number of presentations to fire safety officials on NFPA’s social media efforts, and a worry she hears repeatedly is the unauthorized posting of images of an incident or a victim by emergency responders. Having departments draft a social media policy could alleviate this problem, suggests Backstrom.

Despite the apprehension, she says, departments comprehend the benefits of social media use during all stages of a disaster. "Phone lines could be down, and they may need to get people information about evacuations and road closures," Backstrom says. "People should try using social media before events like this take place, though. If you’re going to decide to pull something together during an emergency, you want to make sure you’re using it in the right way. You want to know what a hashtag is."

One notable education effort is the Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG), established by DHS. An online forum for the group is available on the DHS Communities of Practice website,, and provides discussion points and recommendations for emergency responders on the challenges and successes of social media use. VSMWG developed the Superstorm Sandy report, and it also released two documents in 2012, one providing a high-level introduction to social media and another listing best practices for public safety agencies.

Two-way communication
As discussions on this issue continue, one thing seems clear: dispensing information during an emergency is important, but broadcasting alone doesn’t maximize the potential of these social tools. To best help the public, experts insist that emergency organizations create two-way communications by also listening to the online chatter.

That became apparent during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the first major disaster occurring in the Social Media Age. Born only a few years earlier, Twitter allowed disaster victims to supply an unprecedented level of information on what was happening on the ground. "A lot of organizations and relief agencies would say that Haiti was when social media use during disasters really took off, but after the earthquake we noticed a critical piece missing in the way we use social media during those events," says Gloria Huang, senior officer of Humanitarian Social Engagement for the Red Cross. "We were very good at putting content up [ourselves] … but we didn’t have a way of [addressing] requests that came in from people."

The Red Cross decided to expand its social media monitoring. With financial and technical support from the computer maker Dell, it launched its National Digital Operations Center (DOC) in 2012 to better respond to the public and connect it with resources during major disasters. Essentially part of the organization’s Disaster Operations Center in Washington, D.C., the DOC seeks help from "digital volunteers" who tag and categorize social media posts and tweets. Red Cross staff then analyzes the data and creates reports on some of the trends for its various response teams, who then share the information with local governments and emergency responders.

Digital volunteers aren’t just monitoring sites for information. They’re directly replying to social media users requesting evacuation information and safety information during emergencies. This type of response is trickling down to the Red Cross chapter level, says Huang. "As we codify this process a bit better and have procedures and best practices in place, I think then you’ll have more examples similar to [what happened during] Hurricane Sandy taking place across the country," she says.

FEMA is also trying to maximize the impact of its social media use, particularly for data collection. Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator, created buzz in 2011 when he said his agency would use social media before, during, and after a disaster. Two years later, Shayne Adamski, FEMA’s senior manager of Digital Engagement, provided written testimony to a House of Representatives’ homeland security subcommittee stating that the agency has followed through on its promise. FEMA now has five Facebook pages with approximately 170,000 fans and 36 Twitter accounts that have amassed 460,000 followers. Like the Red Cross, the agency is also "tapping into the potential of social media to gain valuable feedback," Adamski stated in his testimony. FEMA, for instance, identified rumors circulating online during Sandy and quickly corrected the misinformation through its social channels. It has also held "virtual town halls" on Twitter.

Higher education institutions — a setting filled with a generation of Facebook and Twitter enthusiasts — also seem to appreciate the breadth and rapid dissemination of online information. "Social media is integral to our outreach and response efforts," says Diane Mack, director of emergency management and continuity for Indiana University and a member of the NFPA 1600 Social Media Task Group. "We’ve integrated it into our mass notification system. Whenever we send out phone and text alerts, we’re now including social media components."

These components came in handy when reports began circulating of a man removing a long gun from a parked car at the university’s downtown Indianapolis campus last March. The 30,000-student campus was placed on lockdown as officials tried to locate the individual, who was never found. "These tools allow us to understand what’s going on out there [on campus] and the emotions people are feeling," says Mack. "It’s not just information going out, but information coming in. They’re extremely powerful tools if you’re able to harness them. Unfortunately, there are still a number of county emergency managers unfamiliar with these tools."

Standard operating procedures
The need for better guidance and in-depth code language on the use of these tools prompted the formation of the NFPA 1600 Social Media Task Group last year. The 2013 edition of the standard mentions social media in Annex A as part of the development of a crisis communications plan. According to the standard, these plans should include a pre-established structure and process for gathering and disseminating emergency and crisis information to internal and external stakeholders. Collecting inquiries and responding to the public should be incorporated into the process to ensure a two-way dialogue. The standard states that social media can aid in this endeavor, but doesn’t supply additional information on the use of these tools.

"I never realized how large a role social media played in emergency management until the committee members and I started seeing recent examples" of its use, says Orlando Hernandez, staff liaison for NFPA 1600.

Both Hernandez and Jo Robertson, the task group’s chair, say it’s too soon to speculate on new language or provisions that could be included in the standard. The committee, however, has been querying NFPA 1600 committee members on their companies’ social media use, from both the public and private sector, to get a better sense of its function. "Because social media is changing so rapidly, it’s not necessarily going to be worthwhile to list social media platforms [in the standard]," says Robertson. "None of them may be relevant in 2016. We’ll be focusing on why it’s necessary, and its use will be determined by the entity itself."

The task group will continue its discussions on effective code language with the rest of the 1600 committee at its next meeting in March. So far, it seems the committee is in line with the task group’s efforts. "The sense from the committee is that what the task group is doing is right on target," says Hernandez. "I was surprised that there was such broad agreement on this issue. There was a collective acknowledgement that this has to happen." 

Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer at NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @FredDursoJr.


Incidents of social media informing — and misinforming — the public

Rim Fire
August 2013
Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties, California
"One of the biggest problems we have had is social media," a public utilities spokesperson told The Modesto Bee during the wildfire that spread into Yosemite National Park and would become the third largest in California history. Residents were using social media to share inaccurate information on fire spread and neighborhood evacuations. A report that a local firehouse had burnt to the ground also made the rounds. "That would be a surprise to the firefighters sleeping there," Scott Johnson, Tuolumne County’s sheriff, told the paper. Deputies and firefighters intervened by disseminating correct information via these channels.

Boston Marathon Bombings
April 2013
Boston, Massachusetts
More than a quarter of all Americans used social media to obtain updates on the bombing that killed three people and injured more than 250 others, according to a Pew Research Center study. Some of the information being shared was speculative, including viral posts and tweets naming a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, as a suspect. (His body was later found in Rhode Island, after the alleged bombers were apprehended.) "It seems this is just the ugly underbelly of social media," Tripathi’s sister told NBC News. "But a lot of stir can be created through just a complete accusatory and unsubstantiated effort."

Online sleuths participating in a forum on Reddit, a digital bulletin board of various topics and images that users can like or dislike, also misidentified innocent bystanders as suspects, while others disseminated inaccurate reports from major news agencies that suspects had been taken into custody. Sharing was so rampant via these outlets during the manhunt for the suspects that the Boston Police Department tweeted, "WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety By Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched."

Hurricane Isaac
August 2012
Braithwaite, Louisiana
Hitting Louisiana particularly hard, Hurricane Isaac produced a storm surge that flooded the community of Braithwaite, about 20 miles from New Orleans. Though a mandatory evacuation was ordered, a number of residents hunkered down in their homes. One resident, Jesse Shaffer, Jr., posted a Facebook message asking if anyone needed assistance. He received 60 responses, with addresses. Shaffer, along with his father and a member of the local fire department, boarded boats and rescued more than 120 stranded residents, according to USA Today.

Possum Kingdom Lake Fire
April 2011
Palo Pinto County, Texas
Blocked roadways prevented news crews from accessing parts of this lake community during the wildfire that destroyed 130 homes. Rumors and misinformation about the fire spread, forcing displaced residents to share accurate information from reliable sources through social media. One resident created a blog that included maps and aerial photos of buildings that either burned or were threatened, while others turned to a local newspaper’s Facebook page for other details, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "All of my information, I get online," a 23-year-old resident who lives near the affected area told the paper.