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How Governments Use Social Media for Disaster Planning, Response, and Recovery

The Federation of American Scientists recently posted on its Web site a CRS report, “Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations,” by Bruce R. Lindsay. The report argues that social media may be used in a “systematic” way as “an emergency management tool. Systematic usage might include:

  • “using the medium to conduct emergency communications and issue warnings”;
  • “using social media to receive victim requests for assistance”;
  • “monitoring user activities and postings to establish situational awareness”; and
  • “using uploaded images to create damage estimates, among others.”

Of these four prospective uses, the first can be applied both to pre-event planning and inter-event communication. The second two can be understood as inter-event response activities, and the last for recovery efforts after the event has ended. In each phase, agencies are turning to a different mix of tools to help them achieve their goals. Of course, all government agencies at every level should adhere to the roles and responsibilities laid out in the National Response Framework, which lays out the responsibilities of the federal and state governments as:

  • “Coordinating with private-sector and nongovernmental organizations involved in donations management and other recovery activities.”
  • “Establishing Disaster Recovery Centers. Federal, State, tribal, local, voluntary, and nongovernmental organizations determine the need for and location of Disaster Recovery Centers.”
  • “Coordinating with the private sector on restoration and recovery of CIKR [Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources]. Activities include working with owners/operators to ensure the restoration of critical services, including water, power, natural gas and petroleum, emergency communications, and healthcare.” and
  • “Coordinating mitigation grant programs to help communities reduce the potential impacts of future disasters. Activities include developing strategies to rebuild resilient communities.”


to prepare for a disaster, such as Hurricane Irene, agencies on the federal level (such as FEMA) and local level (such as Montgomery County, MD) have turned to social media to help prepare their residents. FEMA operates a Web site, Ready.gov, to which it links from its Facebook page and Blog. It also runs a Twitter feed, on which it gives safety tips in Spanish and English (helpfully tagged #saftytip and #consejo). Montgomery County has an SMS/email alert system that sends out messages in advance of an event telling residents what they can expect and giving links to pages on the County Web site with detailed information.

CRS’s Lindsay also writes that “According to [FEMA] Administrator [Craig] Fugate, possible future applications include using smartphone-friendly mobile versions of FEMA websites to allow users to access information and request assistance, and using social media to facilitate communication between citizens, first responders, volunteer groups, the private sector, and all levels of government.”


Social media have dramatically changed how the government can respond in the dynamic environment of a disaster. Lindsay writes that social media can be used to:

  • alert emergency managers and officials to certain situations by monitoring the flow of information from different sources during an incident;
  • increase the public’s ability to communicate with the government;
  • [allow members of the public to communicate with one another because] information can flow in multiple directions (known as backchannel communication); and
  • supplement to “911” emergency system lines.

Lindsay notes that a “study commissioned by the American Red Cross, younger people generally use social media more frequently than older segments of society. They are also more likely to request help through social media, believe agencies should monitor their postings, and have high expectations that agencies will respond quickly to their requests”


Social media has yet to play a major role in recovery efforts, Lindsay writes, but he also notes that “if FEMA adopted social media use for recovery, the agency could provide information concerning what types of individual assistance is available to individuals and households, including how to apply for assistance, announcing application deadlines and providing information and links to other agencies and organizations that provide recovery assistance, such as the American Red Cross, or Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans for homes and businesses.”

The federal government’s role in recovery, however, is usually circumscribed, and consists largely of coordinating and facilitating activities of local governments, nonprofits, and private-sector organizations, as noted in the excerpts from the National Response Framework (NRF), above.

There are groups that have robust social media tools to aid in recovery. One example is Hands-on-network, which, according to its Web site, “inspires, equips and mobilizes people to take action. . . .” The site offers visitors the ability to “start a project,” which other people may then join.

In a slightly different vein, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) describes itself as a “forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response and recovery—to help disaster survivors and their communities.” Their Web site features a map where people who are interested in volunteering can find local coordination centers all across the US.

Additionally, many other organizations allow people to assist government agencies both in routine maintenance and disaster recovery. An example is SeeClickFix, which some government agencies used to collect information about the damage from Hurricane Irene. The site ran a pilot program through which citizens could not only report issues, but to self-organize to address them directly.

As part of their coordination responsibilities, government agencies could partner with groups like these during disaster recovery activities.


Perhaps the strongest case for using social media for disaster planning, response, and recovery, however, is that it is available even in the midst of almost any kind of event. Through home computers, people far from an event can keep track of the details and the latest information, and through mobile technologies, people affected by an event can communicate with first responders, each other, and their extended networks beyond the event’s perimeter.

The next post in this series will look at specific social media channels and platforms and discuss which are the most appropriate for each phase and task associated with disaster planning, response, and recovery.

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Chris Poirier

Awesome! Dig it. Remind me later, I’ll send you some information and contacts of people, internationally, currently carving out the space for “digital response” to disasters. I have a few slide decks and papers they did in the wake of Irene that is interesting.

Primary focus is on use of social media, crowd sourcing, GIS, etc.

The issue I have mentioned in their discussions, I will repeat here: What we need to do is get in front of the “digital self-responder” issue. Post Katrina and 9/11 we learned our lessons of the failures of self-responders. (e.g., people who respond to a disaster on their own, with no official government or non-governmental support, no training, etc in an attempt to “help”.) The problem here is not that good people want to help, but more so that the lack of organizations, official affiliation, communication, and training typically results in injuries, bad/mis-communications, etc.

During Irene a new problem arose: “Digital self-responders” put up wordpress websites, twitters, facebooks, etc to “help coordinate” emergency response and recovery efforts, but did so on their own accord. The issue here is that this is the primary duty of state, local, federal, and NGOs during a disaster. Though people were getting information faster, there was no fact check taking place on information being blasted out to the people. This took away from official communications channels and made creating single messaging complicated and at times impossible.

All of that aside, what became clear was that this was a space that state, local, federal, etc needs to be ready for and have a plan in place to help manage digital volunteers. The concept of using social media to get the word out faster and allow for two way citizen engagement is important, but what is most important is that the message getting out is in-line with those officials managing the disaster. (You want one voice that can be trusted and people know is where they get their information.) Much like CERT, Red Cross, etc it should be a goal and mission for those, and like, organizations to begin looking at how to harness the public want to help. (Red cross is going to pilot a “digital volunteer” platform in the near future from what I’ve heard.)

There is a lot of good to come out of this, but plenty of policy and related issues to address.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks, Chris.

I, too, think this is really important. One of the key tasks of governments is to keep constituents safe. Another is to help them recover after a disaster. And social media can be such a powerful tool for both of those activities. I’d love to talk to some digital self-responders.

Chris Poirier

@Gadi – I’ll see what I can do later this afternoon.

Remember: “Digital self-responder” = problem “Digital volunteer” = solution 😉

Chris Poirier

Great paper from the Naval Post Graduate School on Volunteer issues: Strategies for Managing Volunteers during Incident Response: A Systems Approach (GWU co-written piece.)

Take their findings, now amplify them by the fact that your “digital self-responders” could be from anywhere in the world and can impact your operations, communications, etc without living their couch. I think a lot can be learned from these types of studies and helping ensure that social media is part of the solution and not the problem.

Dennis Snyder

Be sure to exit the burning building before tweeting about it. You would not believe what I saw during the DC earthquake. Every second spent thumbing around on a keypad delays everyone behind you and completely destroys your situational awareness. Since the focus of the article was to use SM to raise sit awareness I suggest we keep in mind the appropriateness of activities during those times when situational awareness requirements are at a peak.

Dennis Snyder

One more issue. Check the blog on Facebook discontinuing discussions here on GovLoop . If the SM provider owns the content once posted, then govenrment reliance on that posted content is unrealistic because government cannot control commercial property unless a law is being violated. Reliance on SM for government activities should (must) have a MOU/contract in place to exercise such control. I wonder if anyone has done that? Any policies developed that include SM must consider ownership of the data, retention, availability, control, etc.

Chris Poirier

@Dennis: You make a good point, however the overarching point is that (at least in this point in time) SM cannot, I repeat, cannot replace traditional modes of official communication during a disaster. Most of the #SMEM community would tell you that social media is another tool in the tool box, not an end all solution. It does, however, provide a way for citizens to provide information back to the government, etc. (Two way engagement.) It also does provide another way to get the word out faster, reach a large audience, etc but does not replace existing channels for official information during an emergency.

Think of Social media as a throughput, instead of an end state. This removes reliance and data ownership issues. One of many, not many of one.

Eileen Culleton

Hi Ben, and all. Thanks so much Ben, for sharing this report and for your insightful post. We have also added the report to our reports page on the Emergency 2.0 Wiki site.

If anyone knows of any other reports on using social media in emergencies, please let us know and we’ll post them to share with our global community.

You might also be interested in viewing a presentation we gave at the Smart Government Conference in Australia recently on how governments can use social media to help their agencies, employees and customers better prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies. We’d love your feedback.

Also. and of course everyone’s input to the Emergency 2.0 Wiki (under development) is welcome!





Chris Poirier

@Eileen be sure to check out the two reports I posted below here. A great Irene after action done by the good folks at public safety canada. Also, be sure to check out Crisiscommons.org and #smem content on twitter if you aren’t already. HUGE world wide network of emergency managers etc at work.

Eileen Culleton

Hi Gadi, please accept my sincerest apologies for calling you Ben. I got your first name and surname mixed up and just realised once I’d posted. Sorry… Eileen 🙂