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Red Cross Gets Twitter Badges for Hurricane Irene

Aug 29, 2011, 8:16 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


It wasn’t business as usual during Hurricane Irene for the American Red Cross. For the first time, trained digital volunteers monitored Twitter and Facebook conversations about the hurricane and stepped in with relevant updates, including shelter locations and storm safety information. And these volunteers had more than the usual red vest. Wendy Harman, director of social strategy at the Red Cross, received verification badges from Twitter for the digital volunteers to help assure the public that these updates were coming from a reliable resource.

The increased effort is well warranted, according to two new surveys (one via telephone, one online) released by the Red Cross last week, which show that Americans are increasingly relying on social media, mobile technology and online news outlets for information and information-sharing before, during and after a disaster:

  • Followed by television and local radio, the internet is the third most popular way people get emergency information.
  • Eighteen percent of both the general and online population use Facebook for emergency information.
  • Nearly a fourth of the general population and a third of the online population would use social media to let people they love know they are safe.
  • Eighty percent of the general population and 69 percent of the online population think response organizations should use social media to respond promptly.

Harman says that the survey findings should push response organizations to adjust their procedures to use social media more to engage with people in times of disaster and to include information from social networks in their response efforts.

“For this hurricane season, and for the foreseeable future, calling 911 is the best first action to take for emergency assistance during a disaster,” says Harman. “But as the numbers of people using these new technologies in disaster situations continue to increase, response agencies, including the Red Cross, have a tremendous opportunity to use the technologies to listen, inform, and empower people.”

The Red Cross held an Emergency Social Data Summit last year, and since then has created a process to route social media emergency requests to first responders. They are continuing to work with emergency response organizations on processes and protocols for dealing with incoming social media requests for help during an emergency.

The survey highlighted an important concern with respect to social media use during disasters, which is that a wide variety of technologies are used including Facebook, Twitter, text alerts, online news sites and smart phone applications. “This suggests there is no one-size-fits-all approach to using these tools during disasters,” says Harman. Harman stresses that for now 911 is the appropriate way to request assistance in an emergency and social media is the backup. That would never change without clear directives to the public, Harman says.

Harman says Facebook, Twitter and texting tools are, though, often the easiest way to connect with loved ones during and after a disaster. “The more families and friends can take care of each other in emergency situations, the better. So while the public shouldn’t rely on social tools to express needs to response organizations, they’re often quite useful as a choice for contacting loved ones,” Harman says.

Weigh In: What various social media tools did you use during Hurricane Irene to access information and contact family, friends and even emergency help?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.