Facebook today hosted a streaming event with national disaster relief agencies to discuss the important role social media can play during crisis.
With Hurricane Irene threatening to wreak havoc on the East Coast this weekend, representatives from the American Red Cross, National Weather Service and Department of Health and Human Services, participated in discussing how to better integrate social media in their emergency preparedness and response plans.
Recent disaster like the tornado in Joplin, Mo., one of the worst tornadoes in American history, illustrate some ways Facebook and Twitter kept victims connected, document the devastation, and help coordinate services when traditional landlines were downed.
Those kinds of events may have prompted the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, to explore how social technology can help people advance of such emergencies. As a result, the agency is developing a text message service that local authorities can broadcast to inform people during emergencies, a tactic that could elevate the already established use of mobile technology to potentially save lives.
The advantage of text messaging over social networks is that nearly everyone has a cell phone, which Facebook said can help target people where they are rather than making them visit a webpage.
At today’s gathering, Trevor Riggen, American Red Cross director of mass care, used himself as an example to illustrate the trend, saying in response to Tuesday’s 5.8 tremors, the first thing he did was to text his wife and family that he was okay, and posted that status on Facebook.
Beyond his own anecdotal experience, Riggen revealed information from a recent Red Cross poll which backs up his point.
The survey found the internet is the third most popular way people get emergency information, following television and local radio. And the vast majority of the general population — 80 percent — believed national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond promptly.
In addition to social media’s growing use, the survey also pointed to an increasing expectation that social media is an efficient safety channel. Nearly a quarter of the general population reported using social media to let loved ones know they are safe, and more than a third of them would expect requested help to arrive in less than one hour.
That expectation, however, may be hard to deliver upon. When Riggen was asked at the forum whether the Red Cross can respond as quickly to social media requests, he admitted this is not yet possible. He said while the agency uses a variety of platforms, it’s an “enormous challenge” to monitor the volume of social media traffic.
While the agencies continue to plan and prepare for greater social network integration, average citizens do have a growing number of online options and apps to use in emergency cases.
For instance Riggen mentioned a free Apple app that provides shelter locations, talked about the Safe and Well site where people can register information about their safety and location, and promoted the Android app “American Red Cross SOS” app, which teaches first aid and CPR.
For those wanting to keep an eye on Irene or other weather-related developments, Laura K. Furgione, National Weather Service deputy director, reported 122 of the agency’s forecast offices have Facebook pages that encourage folks to send information and act as the agency’s eyes and ears on the ground.