FEMA: Social Media Doing a Heckuva Job

It might not be the best advertising adjacency, but social media has huge potential for collecting and disseminating information and helping coordinate disaster responses, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate, who told reporters that FEMA will make more use of social media (including mobile access) during future emergencies.

Fugate said recent examples illustrating social media's potential for disaster response include the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where email, social media, and text messages played an invaluable role in allowing rescue workers and survivors to communicate, even when traditional channels, like landline telephones, were out of commission.

(This new potential partly reflects the growing penetration of not just social media, but smartphones which can sometimes continue operating even when other communications infrastructure is down. Depending on the type, extent, and location of the disaster, technicians are also sometimes able to restore cellular service before legacy communications grids are repaired.)

Fugate told Information Week: "One of our assumptions has been that when there's a big disaster, we lose all communications, we lose all wireless Haiti was sort of a validation that that's no longer the case."

Interestingly, FEMA views social media as two-way channels for communications, and will use them to gather information about local conditions as well as issuing updates and instructions. In the same interview, Fugate added: "We can adjust much quicker if we can figure out how to have this two-way conversation and if we can look at the public as a resource. The public is putting out better situational awareness than many of our own agencies can."

Back in August I wrote about the somewhat surprising results of a survey of 1,058 American adults by Infogroup and the American Red Cross, which found that after 911, social media was the most popular source of information during an emergency. Almost half (44%) of the respondents said they would ask other people on their social networks to contact emergency responders on their behalf if they couldn't call 911 themselves; 35% said they'd post a request for help directly on a response agency's Facebook page; and 28% would send a direct Twitter message to responders.

Meanwhile the Feds have loosened some rules to allow government agencies to make greater use of social media. In April 2010 the Office of Management and Budget waived cumbersome paperwork requirements for government communications that enable "unstructured" responses or feedback from private citizens -- which includes official communications via social networks like Facebook -- in accord with the Open Government Directive issued by the White House on December 8, 2009. And in February the Department of Defense embraced the possibilities of social media for communicating with DoD employees and the civilian population. Pentagon officials issued a memo outlining new rules for Internet use by employees, which directed that non-classified networks should henceforth allow access to social network sites -- with provisions, of course, for a shutdown in case social network activity threatens a security breach.

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