Is your website and social media prepared for an emergency?

Wed, 2015-07-22 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

When was the last time your city updated its emergency plan? The way we communicate has changed a lot even over the past few years, so if your city’s website and social media aren’t key parts an emergency plan, it may be time to update it.

Like it or not, social media is becoming the primary way that many people communicate. One survey found that in a region-wide disaster, nearly half those polled said they would use social media to let loved ones know they’re safe.

In Atlanta, a city councilman once used Twitter instead of 911 to summon help for an unconscious woman. While nobody would recommend that as an ideal way to get help, he said his phone was dying and he didn’t want to be on hold with dispatchers. Several of his followers called 911 for him and the woman is OK.

Because of the evolving nature of communication, Council Associate Partner SunGard Public Sector says it’s time for cities to give their emergency plans a second look – and it’s offering a few suggestions for getting started.

1. Get started today
Aside from the fact that ever increasing numbers of people rely on social media, SunGard Public Sector says cities have a second reason to boost their presence there too: It helps reduce the load on city websites. SunGard finds that city web servers can grind to a halt, overwhelmed by visitors even in relatively minor events, like snowstorms.

But that also increases the need to act today. While you can set up a Twitter account or Facebook page in minutes, truly establishing those presences so that people know they can go there for information takes longer. Boston earned high marks for its public outreach after the bombing incident at the 2013 Boston Marathon; the city credits the fact that its social media channels were already well-developed.

And city leaders say what Boston accomplished is much harder than it looks. North Saskatchewan turned to social media to share information about raging wildfires -- in part because citizens wanted a vehicle to directly hear from and respond to leaders. Social media seems easy, but Saskatchewan found it takes some effort to cut through the clutter.

2. Know who does what
One common way that cities share information is to put a red banner at the top of their homepage. In an emergency, though, how would you do that? Before an incident, you should know where the emergency information will reside, how to turn that feature on and who ultimately will be responsible for it.

SunGard Public Sector says it’s important to identify a lead agency who will assume control for the updates early in the disaster response. Having that single point is critical to ensure both that the updates will be made, but also that they will be accurate. It’s critically important to avoid posting conflicting information.

Further, your city’s internal emergency contact list probably needs to be longer than it is today. Make sure that people who manage your website are on it.

3. Emphasize two-way communication
In old plans, communication was typically thought of as one directional; the city had information that it wanted to communicate to a wide audience. Today, it’s important to develop plans that make that communication two-way. How do you not only share information, but also share the ability for others to provide information that could help their fellow citizens and improve your response?

Jakarta’s flood management efforts provide a great example of this strategy in action. Flooding is a huge problem there, claiming homes and lives every year. To improve its response efforts, Jakarta built a tool that crowdsources flood information. Each tweet about flooding is plotted on a map and checked against forecasts to help the city plan and refine the areas where it concentrates assistance.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

More stories …
Has your city’s disaster response kept up with the times? (Probably not)
How analytics help utilities speed storm response (and even prevent outages)
How smart transportation systems reduce emergency response times, saves lives