How Social Media is Becoming a Vital Resource in Disaster Preparedness and Response

How Social Media is Becoming a Vital Resource
in Disaster Preparedness and Response
By Susan W. Brooks
Chairman, House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee
on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications
and representative of Indiana’s 5th District

The nation recently marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Fifty years ago it took many hours for most Americans to receive the tragic news and they did when their network newscaster broke into scheduled programming. Thirty-eight years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, millions of Americans, and indeed many citizens in even third world countries, literally watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Cable television provided up-to-the-minute coverage. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, most of us still watched the coverage on cable, but state and federal emergency responders were more apt to be in touch via Blackberry than they were just four years earlier in New York and Washington, D.C.

And today? An increasing number of people hear major news through social media.

Our society has transmuted the words “posting” and “tweeting” into action verbs and social media is now one of the most common forms of communication. According to a recently-released Pew Research Center report, roughly 30 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook while eight percent get it from Twitter.[i] The United States is shifting away from traditional media outlets into 21st century options. Long gone are the days where radios, televisions, and newspapers were the only sources of information. Social media is one of the primary ways we share information. This is particularly true during times of emergency, where people turn to social media to obtain public safety information, connect with friends and family, and even request assistance from emergency response organizations.  For example, the first official announcement that Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured was not through a traditional press conference, but through the Boston Police Department’s Twitter account. The post, which was retweeted more than 135,000 times, said, “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.”

Last year during Hurricane Sandy, millions of Americans turned to Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram for information about the storm’s projected track, the location of streets and towns that were flooded, how to place requests for federal assistance, and the location of open shelters. According to information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), social media users sent over 20 million Sandy-related tweets during the height of the storm despite the severe cellphone and power outages. Eleven years earlier, hundreds of families in the same neighborhoods of New York and New Jersey waited for hours to hear from relatives due to the same types of outages.

Though there are many positive aspects of the increased use of social media during disasters, we must also be mindful of the potential negative consequences and possibility that someone could purposely do harm using social media. There is the potential for misleading, faulty, or even malicious information to quickly escalate on social media and have adverse impacts on response efforts. This was the case when Reddit users incorrectly identified the potential Boston Marathon bombers, information that caused a citywide manhunt and panic that required local responders to divert attention from mission critical operations to assist with damage control.

I was honored when asked by Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) to chair the Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, especially as a new member of Congress. As chairman, I’ve made it one of my priorities to shed light on the work the government, private sector, and individual citizens are doing to incorporate social media into their disaster preparedness and response. I also want to ensure members of Congress to understand the vital role social media plays in emergency management and educate them about how they can leverage it to communicate with their constituents during disasters and emergencies.

In 2013, the subcommittee held two hearings that focused on social media and emergency response. During these hearings we heard from federal and state officials, including Shayne Adamski from FEMA and W. Greg Kierce from the Jersey City Office of Emergency Management; nonprofit leaders like Michael Beckerman from The Internet Association and Suzanne DeFrancis from the American Red Cross; and private sector executives including Matthew Stepka from, Jason Payne from Palantir Technologies and Jorge Cardenas from the Public Service Enterprise Group. We also consulted with an online community called Social Media and Emergency Management (#SMEM).

The first hearing focused on the role of the private sector in this field. In so many ways, the future of disaster response lies in private-public partnerships and this first hearing made me more confident in that opinion.

Witnesses from across the private sector testified on the amazing work they’ve done in emergency management and gave advice about what the federal government could do to improve its own disaster response initiatives. Additionally, the subcommittee heard how social media was used before, during, and after Hurricane Sandy and other recent disasters. For example, prior to Hurricane Sandy making landfall, Google allowed the official National Weather Service warnings to appear on the search result page anytime a user’s search contained keywords related to Hurricane Sandy. Also, during landfall and immediately after, Google activated their CrisisMap, which became a “one stop shop” for people trying to find the nearest shelter or open gas station. During the hearing we also heard from a New Jersey power company, Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G), that described its experience using social media as a form of communication. During the peak of Hurricane Sandy the company added more than 47,000 followers, sent out more than 9,000 messages, and received more than 90,000 messages. The PSE&G official also said during a disaster, survivors “want to be heard, they want to be validated, [and] they want to help and influence us…People flock to Twitter and Facebook and the like because they are searching for immediate information that they can’t get via traditional broadcast channels.”[ii]

I applaud Twitter for recently releasing Twitter Alerts, a service that enables certified accounts to send tweets in a push notification so all opted-in followers will see the messages immediately on their smartphone. While still in its infancy, Twitter Alerts was used by the Senate Sergeant-in-Arms to alert its followers, mostly Congressional staffers, to shelter in place during a recent shooting on Capitol Hill. As I huddled with staffers in my office, I immediately sent a Tweet notifying family and friends that everyone in the Brooks office was safe. The speed at which this message was picked up by local media outlets and retweeted by Hoosiers back home was truly amazing.

While the hearing was a platform to talk about the best practices and lessons learned, it was also an opportunity to learn about the current gaps in using social media during disasters. One of the common concerns mentioned by the witnesses was the lack of machine-readable data. As one of the witnesses, Matthew Stepka, Google’s vice president of strategy, said “[W]hen data is not in open formats, many steps are required to share it and extra steps can keep critical information from getting to people in a timely manner.”[iii] The witnesses said during Hurricane Sandy the vast majority of the information posted by federal, state, and local governments was in PDF format. In order to show a complete picture of both the private and public sectors response efforts in a centralized location, Google and Palantir employees had to manually enter in the majority of the public sector data. Not only was this task very time consuming, it also delayed the release of critical information to the public.

The goal of the first hearing was to hear from the private sector on its role and responsibilities in this field. The subcommittee felt that in order to gain an understanding of the whole spectrum in this new phenomenon, it needed to hold a second hearing focusing on the role of the public sector and NGO’s, mainly FEMA and the Red Cross, in using social media for emergency management purposes.

I and the other subcommittee Members were impressed by the Red Cross’ ability to collect, analyze and respond to social media information through its Digital Operations Center. The Digital Operations Center, located at the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., was established in partnership with Dell and is the first social media center devoted to humanitarian relief. The Digital Operations Center monitors the Red Cross’ Twitter and Facebook accounts and keyword searches of publicly-available tweets and Facebook posts. During Hurricane Sandy, relying on more than 50 digital volunteers, the Red Cross monitored social media around the clock, analyzing more than 2.5 million pieces of data.

Not all responders have such capacity at their fingertips though. A significant number of local emergency management offices are staffed by a small group of people, many of whom are volunteers. The ability of these offices to effectively respond and update social media during a disaster is limited. This is where a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) can be beneficial. I learned about VOSTs prior to my hearings when I participated in the weekly #SMEM chats. VOSTs are a team of trusted agents that lend support via the Internet to an affected area’s emergency operation center and emergency management offices. The goal of a VOST is to become a force multiplier in collecting data and pushing out information to survivors. If you have the time and are looking for ways to assist during a disaster, I would recommend becoming a member of a VOST or a Red Cross digital volunteer to help with monitoring social media during State-wide or national events.

During the hearing, we also learned FEMA operates a rumor control website to resolve rumors that surface online during a disaster. (One of the rumors the agency encountered during Hurricane Sandy was that sharks were swimming down Broadway Street.) A kind of Snopes (a website that fact checks urban legends for readers) for the emergency management world, this website has become a place for survivors to check and see if a post or tweet is factual or not. Additionally, FEMA has created a social hub website ( that centralizes all the tweets from trusted and verified sources ranging from ongoing disaster response efforts to long-term recovery efforts. While this step is important to ensure the accuracy of shared information, I’m concerned with how local emergency managers will be able prevent the spread of rumors in small-scale disasters where FEMA is not involved. The fact that too few state and local officials do not know how to, or are not yet using, social media to communicate during a disaster is very troubling to me. Leaders in Washington D.C. should do more to promote its use at the state and local level. FEMA currently provides limited social media-related training; it is imperative that we accelerate this training to ensure it is available to local emergency managers as well as state managers.

We must also take swift action to address ongoing concerns with the lack of usable data available during a disaster situation. In May of 2013, the White House issued an executive order, “Making Open and Readable the New Default for Government Information,” which instructed government agencies to revamp efforts to make federal data and information consumable and useful for local government agencies and the private sector. This order was a step in the right direction, but Congress must hold our agencies accountable for actually following through with this request. Recently I and several of my colleagues sent a letter to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate requesting an update on his agency’s efforts to disperse information in more tech-savvy formats. It is my hope FEMA will move quickly on this matter so that in the unfortunate event of another large-scale disaster like Hurricane Sandy, we’re able to filter quality and relevant information in ways that save more lives.

Social media is our new communications reality. As a nation, we must prioritize social media as an avenue for two-way communication with survivors. We must be nimble enough to adapt to an ever-changing landscape where new platforms and technology can alter the game almost instantly. I hope these hearings and future Subcommittee events will continue to shine a light on this important topic and help guide our emergency responders into the 21st century. In my position, I guarantee I will continue to advocate for state and local emergency responders to ensure they have the resources necessary, particularly training or policies, needed to keep their communities safe before, during, and after a disaster.

I also encourage readers to share their thoughts with me and other subcommittee members via social media. Please visit my Facebook page ( or follow me (@SusanWBrooks) on Twitter.

[i] Holcomb, Jesse; et al. News Use Across Social Media Platforms. Accessed on November 19, 2013.
[ii] Testimony by Mr. Jorge L. Cardenas before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, June 4, 2013.
[iii] Testimony by Mr. Matthew Stepka before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, June 4, 2013.