Floods, bushfires and earthquakes, oh my!

The burgeoning use of Social Media during natural disasters

Helicopter fighting fires

Image courtesy of Sean Elliston: Churchill fires Black Saturday 2009

In the past ten years social media has become an integral part of emergency management. With 13.8 million people on Facebook in Australia (yep, that’s over half the population), the digital age has drastically changed the way we seek out information. In emergency response situations, questions can be asked, have my neighbours been evacuated? Has the threat passed? Can I bring my dog? and they can be answered right away.

Using social media a resident can get the most up to date advice, collect and donate goods, rally communities together, check on loved ones, the opportunities are endless. Social media provides a central point to access local, up to date information quickly and easily. The sheer speed of social media makes it a great match for emergency management situations but the potential downside is a steep one. The difference between life and death may lie in a tweet or post from an unreliable source.

The Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 saw a fire front moving up to 600m per 30 seconds. The efficient and effective use of social media in a situation such as this could be lifesaving. But what if the information put out isn’t accurate? In the six years since black Saturday the social media landscape has changed substantially so there is no real understanding of what would happen in a current event.

The risks involved for individuals, organisations and businesses are huge. Could a person be held accountable for the information they put out? What if they are directed to put out that information by their manager? The need for good, current policy for emergency services, government and other agencies is clear. If ever there is a time your communications are high risk and under a potential microscope it is during an emergency response. On top of all this your customers’ expectations are sky high.

The interconnectedness of agencies’ messages is of paramount importance. There must be agreed single points of truth for each area; roads, police, water, firefighters. A communication plan must exist that includes how the agency will interact with its stakeholders through social media as well as detail how information is to be sourced and distributed. Employees knowing what to post and when to post it is the best way to avoid errors and protect lives.

Harnessing and evaluating real time information is critical in times of crisis and by posting any information online there is risk. But the greater risk is in neglecting to provide your audience with the appropriate messages. The information must be available where they seek it… social media.

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