Social Media in Emergency Management: Tools and Applications for Disaster Response

View all blog posts under Articles

Emergency professional updating on social mediaIn October 2019, a massive wildfire broke out near the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The size of the fire was nearly 750 acres and prompted evacuations of nearby neighborhoods. As firefighters battled and managed the blaze, information and updates were made available across the Los Angeles Fire Department’s social media platforms.

The LAFD’s use of digital platforms to update the public of the fire’s movements and firefighter response was a strong display of social media in emergency management. Social media has become an increasingly popular and useful method of informing individuals in emergency situations and natural disasters. First responders and emergency management professionals now have various platforms to provide immediate updates and pertinent news about local disasters.

Despite the helpfulness and functionalities of social media platforms in emergency management, some government agencies and emergency organizations aren’t aware of the proper use of these tools. Here’s vital information about how to use social media effectively in emergency management.

Social Media Tools and Platforms for Emergency Management

Every day across the U.S., emergencies are taking place that impact lives and communities. Public officials like police officers, firefighters and first responders help those whose lives have been or are at threat of becoming impacted by such emergencies. Emergency professionals have many tools at their disposal to save lives, and social media is now another valuable platform.

Social Media Tools and Platforms for Emergency Management

The most popular, recognizable social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, are the best places to start for an emergency management communications plan. Communities, cities, states, government agencies and other organizations have turned to the platforms as an effective means of providing information and updates during emergencies.

For example, the New York Police Department provides information about recent criminal activity, emergencies and other events on its Twitter page. NYPD often shares detailed information regarding the event, potential suspects, pertinent images and footage, as well as contact information. Similarly, the San Francisco Police Department’s Facebook page posts information regarding recent crimes, arrests and other events.

Social Media Approaches/Methods for Emergency Management

Each social media platform can be useful in emergency management efforts. Depending on what goals emergency management professionals are trying to achieve, certain social media methods and approaches may be more beneficial than others.

Facebook is the largest social media network with nearly 2.5 billion users across the globe, and messages posted to this platform have the best chance of being seen by a large digital audience. Certain functionalities also make it appealing in an emergency management situation. For example, if a major car accident is impacting traffic on the freeway, emergency management officials can use a Facebook post to detail the crash, expected commuting delays and alternative routes to take depending on where a driver is coming from.

Twitter only allows 280 characters per message, or tweet, so it may not be as effective in conveying large amounts of information in one post. The messages can still be immediately viewed and retweeted by followers and can be helpful in sending short alerts and updates about emergencies, such as a shooting or a crime that’s currently taking place.

Hashtags enable social media users to see a collection of posts with corresponding text. For example, if a user was to search the hashtag #travelimages on Twitter or Instagram, all publicly available images that shared that same hashtag would appear. Hashtags can be helpful to emergency management professionals when trying to organize and collect public information regarding an emergency.

Necessary Social Media Training for Emergency Management Professionals

It may also benefit professionals in emergency management organizations to be well versed in content production and management tools. This can include becoming proficient in graphics and video production tools, such as Adobe’s Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere programs, as well as Apple Final Cut Pro.

Understanding how to communicate with users during and after an emergency is crucial. For example, many law enforcement organizations allow users to submit tips and information through direct messages on individual social media platforms, while others may request submissions by email or to a direct hotline. Whichever manner a department or an organization chooses depends on the strengths and limitations of its social media team.

Social Media in Disaster Response

Every social media platform provides unique functionalities and services. Each may have benefits in one disaster scenario or situation versus another. This is especially true in large-scale disasters, during and after the event itself.

Social Media Tools and Platforms for Addressing Disasters

The LAFD used Facebook to post information regarding the Getty fire’s size and spread, nearby roads affected, how to prepare for evacuations, and contact information for various government departments for assistance after the fire.

Twitter can be used to post updates about a disaster’s development, as well as pertinent accompanying graphics, images, and video that would be useful to the public. For example, the National Hurricane Center uses Twitter to provide timely updates on the movement and development of tropical storms, as well as providing images of the hurricane and course maps.

Instagram is a visual social media platform where users can upload images and videos with accompanying messages. For disasters, Instagram can be used to display images and video of the disaster, as well as text about the event and necessary preparation and recovery efforts. The U.S. National Weather Service uses its Instagram page to show images of storms and videos of their development, as well as tips and recommendations to those who may be impacted.

Law enforcement organizations can use additional platforms beyond Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. According to an article in Wired, Snapchat, for example, can help individuals see immediate, real-life videos posted by users during a natural disaster. YouTube can be a helpful platform in displaying video of disaster preparedness, as well as footage and the aftermath of the disaster itself.

Necessary Social Media Training for Disaster Relief Professionals

Misusing a platform or relying on only one platform can lead to the public’s not becoming fully aware and informed of natural disasters and their danger. Ultimately, disaster relief professionals should employ various social media tools and approaches when coordinating disaster relief efforts.

Understanding how to use the various tools and functionalities built in platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat is beneficial. However, it involves devising and executing a specific strategy for each platform, such as using Facebook to share longer information of evacuation instructions for a hurricane, while using Twitter to display immediate information on the hurricane’s development itself.

How a disaster relief professional or organization chooses to use social media varies by the reach and size of the social media audience. The fire department of one city may have a robust Twitter presence, while that of another community may have a greater number of Facebook followers. These factors should be considered when developing strategies to make sure that information reaches as many people as possible.

Disaster relief professionals should also be prepped in best practices for communicating with social media users before, during and after the disaster. This can include designating and promoting a social media platform as a place where individuals can leave questions or clearly communicating to users what type of information they can expect to receive — and when — on certain social media accounts.

Disaster relief officials should also tackle unexpected developments in their social media efforts and make changes when necessary. For example, a government agency may find that certain Facebook posts perform better using an image rather than accompanying text. Knowing this, the officials can adjust or pivot their strategy to ensure that their message reaches as many people as possible.

Additional Social Media Information and Resources for Emergency Professionals

With a firm understanding of the best social media practices, emergency management and disaster relief professionals can work to keep individuals safe and protect lives. Additional tips and resources can help in their social media efforts.

Emerging Social Media Platforms and Tools for Emergencies/Disaster Relief

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists several social media platforms, sites and tools used by emergency managers. In addition to the social media platforms described earlier, this resource also notes how tools like Vimeo, Hootsuite, Trendsmap and TweetDeck can be beneficial to these professionals in emergency situations.

Vimeo is a video uploading and sharing tool like YouTube, where users can watch videos hosted by several accounts. This can be helpful to emergency management and disaster relief professionals as they share footage and clips pertaining to a certain event. Hootsuite is a platform that enables users to manage multiple social media accounts at once. Emergency responders and disaster relief professionals can post multiple updates across platforms more efficiently with Hootsuite than if they were logging in and out of individual accounts on their own.

Trendsmap enables users to see what’s trending on Twitter by location. This can be useful for emergency responders to identify potential emergencies and disasters. TweetDeck is another tool that enables users to organize Twitter information and perform more targeted searches. Emergency professionals can use TweetDeck to see the most popular tweets about a certain emergency or disaster event or filter tweets published by certain authors or within a given radius.

Common Mistakes When Using Social Media for Emergencies/Disaster Relief

On social media platforms, emergency responders and disaster relief professionals may use a different voice or tone depending on the messages they convey to their audiences. If a police department is sharing more lighthearted news, it may speak in a more friendly or humorous tone on social media platforms. However, when discussing serious matters regarding emergencies and disasters, it’s important to have poise and be more professional in communication.

Professionals should be as concise and clear in their social media communication as possible. Emergency management and disaster officials may be more familiar with a certain event than the public, and in turn, not realize that the information they’re releasing to larger groups may be too complicated or complex to understand. Knowing how to distill complicated information efficiently so that it’s effectively understood by a wide audience is crucial.

Pursuing Additional Education on Social Media and Emergencies/Disaster Relief

Social media is constantly evolving, and best practices for its use by emergency officials will change as well. It’s important for them to monitor and update their social media practices frequently by attending social media workshops and seminars, obtaining certifications, and reading updates and articles from publications that focus on and highlight social media. Being on top of the latest social media trends will enable emergency management and disaster relief personnel to better serve citizens and save lives.