Faces of Public Health: Laura Howe, The American Red Cross

May 9, 2014, 3:05 PM


The American Red Cross recently announced the opening of its second Digital Operations Center—the first one outside of its national headquarters in Washington, D.C.—in the organization’s North Texas Region. Both centers are funded by the Dell Computer Corporation. The new center, along with others to be opened in the next few years, expands the ability of the American Red Cross to engage in social media, especially during regional disasters.

The Center will “allow us to build a center of expertise through our digital volunteers who help provide social data for regional responses,” said Laura Howe, vice president of public relations at the American Red Cross. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Howe about the impact of using social media to respond during disasters.

NewPublicHealth: How did the Red Cross social listening program begin?

Laura Howe: We started a social listening program for emergencies and disaster in a fulsome way after the Haiti earthquake. I walked out of my office and I had a bunch of staff members who were in tears. They were getting Twitter and Facebook messages from members of the Haitian diaspora community here in the United States giving them the exact locations of where people were trapped under rubble and where people needed help in Port au Prince. We were able to move that information to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense to hopefully get people help on the ground. But, it showed us two things. It showed us the power of individuals to provide information that can help responders, but it also showed that there was a tremendous gap in the response system for being able to take in information and respond specifically to people who had an urgent emergency rescue need, and there really is no infrastructure to be able to do that.

But I do want to make clear that the Red Cross as an organization and Red Cross disaster workers are not going to be able to take in information off of social media and then send one of our people to come get you out of the rubble or to come rescue you. We are not acting as a 911 dispatch here. We are using social media platforms to provide people with preparedness information, emotional support and information that they can take action on. We’re also listening for information that can help us in our disaster response generally and help us better hone where we’re putting our resources during a disaster.


NPH: What are the criteria for an optimal American Red Cross digital volunteer?

Laura Howe: We want someone who is comfortable in a social space; understands social media platforms and how social communities work; and is comfortable engaging with the public, having done that previously. Volunteers don’t necessarily have to have professional experience with social media, but do have to have a personal comfort level. Our training follows up on those prior skills about how to engage on behalf of the Red Cross. We train the digital volunteers about how we take in the information and then move it to our decision makers in order to make operational decisions.

I think if you want to get involved at a deeper level with the Red Cross or with any agency as a digital volunteer, there’s really room for people to do that who are very engaged in their communities and would then get formally trained, be under some sort of structure and be able to then process all that other information that they’re seeing in the social space.

NPH: What does the training consist of?

Laura Howe: We have two levels of training. One is a course called Social Basics which we established about two years ago. It used to be an online webinar and will shortly be changed to a self-serve online platform and will take about 45 minutes. That training is open to all Red Cross staff and volunteers, whether you’re going to be helping during a disaster or whether you’re somebody who just wants to share their Red Cross story and their Red Cross experience through social media.

We’re piloting the second level of training in ten chapters around the country which very specifically trains volunteers about how to interact with people during emergency situations. It also trains you on how to interact on behalf of the Red Cross in a deeper way even when there isn’t a disaster, though the guts of the course is emergency oriented and teaches some basic crisis and risk communications principles.

To be eligible for that training individuals must be registered Red Cross volunteers, have a background check and be associated with a Red Cross chapter.

NPH: How much autonomy does a digital volunteer member have in a disaster?

Laura Howe: Our digital volunteers are really there to provide information; to listen to the public for information that might be helpful in our disaster response; and to provide safety information, guidance and support. As I’ve said, if someone tweets that they need help, our first and always default response to people is to call 911. We want the public to do that directly because that’s going to be a faster and a better way for someone to get help than for a Red Cross person to try to work through systems.

NPH: Does the Red Cross engage digitally with partners and agencies during disasters?

Laura Howe: It’s a multi-layered approach. We tell our local chapters that they have to cultivate those relationships before disasters happen. So, they’re having those in-person conversations and building those relationships with partner agencies in a very real world setting prior to a disaster. But where partnerships can be enhanced is where we can amplify their messages such as exchanging data we find in the social media space.

A great example of that at the national level is that during major disasters when we activate our disaster digital operations center here in Washington, we provide daily reporting to our operational leadership about the conversations we’re hearing, the trends that we’re seeing and what’s going on out there in the social space that can inform their decision making. We share those reports with our federal partners and local chapters and many times they will do similar things at a very local level and share those reports and share what they’re hearing through the social space with their local partners as well.

NPH: What kind of information is optimal for community members to provide to each other during a disaster?

Laura Howe: It’s likely that if you are in a disaster-affected community you’ll see or hear about damage such as a road that’s closed due to downed power lines. And individuals can make a powerful difference if they share what they see and they share what they know.

We’ve seen examples when we’ve scanned the social universe of who have provided information about the place where they live that has damage and nobody knows about it yet, so no one has been out there to provide them things they need such as food and water. We’ve seen this happen after tornadoes, for example, when some very rural areas sustained damage and nobody in the response community knew about those areas and knew they had been affected.

I tell people not to underestimate the power of sharing what you see and what you know during an emergency, and don’t underestimate the power of sharing preparedness information or sharing the weather warnings that you hear that might help your neighbor or that might help someone else in your community be able to help themselves before, during and after a disaster. Any citizen can have an impact that way because you never know who, in the chain of responders, will see your information and use that as part of the other intelligence they’re gathering about what’s happening on the ground during a disaster.

>>Bonus Links: The American Red Cross recently released a free, downloadable smartphone flood app that can help people deal with the aftermath of a serious flood in their community including power outages, and other safety concerns. Other free downloadable apps from the Red Cross provide critical preparedness and aftermath information, some of it available even without needing to be online, on other disaster topics including hurricanes and tornadoes.

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