Hurricane Irene Status Updates - From Facebook: A Q&A With Clay Stamp

Aug 31, 2011, 4:55 PM, Posted by


When Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast this past weekend, the Emergency Services Department in Talbot County, MD ramped up use of its Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with residents who wanted regular updates. NewPublicHealth spoke with Clay Stamp, the county’s emergency services director, about the wide ranging benefits social media provided for both the agency and the social media followers during the recent crisis.

NewPublicHealth: When did you start the Facebook page?

Clay Stamp: Over a year ago. It was really set up just to keep the public aware of things going on within the department as well as severe weather watches and warnings. Then we realized that we could potentially use it to have people report in what is happening around the county. Let’s say we have a severe thunderstorm watch or tornado watch, and all of a sudden we know we’re starting to get some damage, we will put up a message that says we’re requesting a report on the various portions of the county. So all of a sudden we’ve got all this information coming in to know where to direct emergency resources, whether it is emergency for fire rescue or whether it’s a public road issue. It multiplied our efficiency by tenfold, and so that was pretty exciting. And we link our Facebook page with Twitter so that the information goes out on Twitter as well.

NPH: Were you concerned at all that you would get false reports or inaccurate reports?

Clay Stamp: Well, we recognize that that’s a possibility and we try to confirm them, and that has not been a problem. Most of the time when we get a report, we get five of them.

NPH: So you had this reliable resource in place when Irene hit?

Clay Stamp: Exactly. My philosophy as an emergency manager with regard to communications is to be completely open. Much like the weather service, they put everything out, and so I do the same thing. So, I chose to do it over Facebook this time opening it up to the world and I was shocked at the response we got. We increased by over a thousand people [who "liked" the Facebook page] in less than four days.

NPH: What other ways do you communicate during an emergency?

Clay Stamp: We actually have a number of ways we communicate with the public. One is we issue press releases through a blast email process and we use our mass notification system that puts out alerts over text messaging, voice-over telephone and activates pagers. We can actually alert about 38,000 people in about ten minutes.

NPH: How do your efforts on Facebook complement other communications means for an emergency?

Clay Stamp: No, I think that all of those modalities worked well and I think Facebook worked well, and I don’t see any need to change anything we’ve done. It’s amazing; people seemed to have behaved well on Facebook. For the most part, everybody was very responsible and there was no need to limit anyone. By that I mean on your page there are certain settings that you can set, for example turning the page into “read only” and not allowing people to comment. We didn’t do that, and now that the hurricane is behind us, I wouldn’t want to do that. It’s better to allow the free flow of communications and it worked well with Irene.

In Talbot County, social media allowed for multiple levels of communication to occur at the same time over a single medium – Facebook – the ability to issue advisories and recommendations to the public, our ability to comfort those that may be in harm’s way by having the most updated information, our ability to notify people that have secondary homes here, our ability to receive input from people out in the community providing us with information on damage, and include photographs. So, you have those multiple streams of communication occurring over a single communications medium, which allowed us to operate much more efficiently and allowed for the whole operation to be a success.

The world is changing. We see large groups of individuals gathering online because they can communicate over social media. We’ve seen it in foreign countries and my thought was I wanted to create an emergency preparedness flash mob in Talbot County.

NPH: What have you learned from Irene that you would change, if anything?

Clay Stamp: The only thing I would expand upon is we were putting our advisories on Facebook in both English and Spanish, and I would expand that to the other mediums because we do have a population here that doesn’t speak English and we have to cognizant of their needs as well.

NPH: Given the success you had with Facebook and Twitter during Hurricane Irene, will you drop any of your older communications methods for dealing with an emergency?

Clay Stamp: No. I think they are additional tools in our toolbox as emergency managers. We need to communicate on multiple levels. We have folks that don’t have computers and we have people that want to talk to a human being. During the hurricane, we set up a few lines for people to be able to call in and talk to a real person. We need a toolbox full of tools.

NPH: Post storm, what’s the feedback you’ve gotten from users?

Clay Stamp: Three [types of feedback] encompass the gist – “You guys rock,” “You made a big difference to the safety of people in Talbot County," and “It makes us feel safer knowing you have our backs.”

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