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Lessons from the Fire – A Social Media Story

So, late one afternoon, my building caught fire. My apartment was fine; other people weren’t so lucky.

I got the call around 6:30 PM.

“Oh, Joe, I think your building is on fire.”

It was a friend of mine, John Hanshaw, who lives nearby. He could see my apartment building and said that it was surrounded by fire engines.

I really didn’t believe him at first. DC sends out fire trucks for everything. They roll not just for fires, but for medical calls as well. This is because the ambulances are unreliable and sometimes can’t find the right address. The thinking is that the local fire company knows the neighborhood better.

But this makes the city a “land of sirens”, with fire trucks constantly racing down streets, sirens blaring. After a while, the commotion becomes so much background noise.

At the time, I was a few blocks away, having a drink. I was about to go to an election night party.

I tweeted flippantly:

Within just a couple of minutes I got a second call, this time from Neil Torda in the mountains of North Carolina. We went to high school together and he knows my place in DC. Seeing my tweet, he did a Google search.

He posted an article about the fire that he found online and sent me this terrifying picture.

Now, I was worried. I walked back, visions of my building completely destroyed.

When I got there, the fire was out. There was a black hole on the 9th floor where an apartment used to be. I hoped that my place, on the 7th floor, on the backside of the building was okay.

My neighbors were sheltering in the lobby of a building around the corner. The building’s management provided pizza and drinks. Later on, the Red Cross distributed blankets.

Everyone wanted to know when they could get back inside. Management said it would be a couple hours. And that they would call us (which they never did).

To me, this seemed hopelessly optimistic. Looking at the burned-out apartment, the broken windows, the smoke and water damage, all the ladder trucks surrounding the building, getting the elevator running, the necessary investigations – there was no way we were getting in that night.

I left and walked over to the Helix, a boutique hotel a couple doors down from where I live. I knew that they were actively involved in the local community, having been a sponsor of the DC Shorts Film Festival, which I volunteer for. I love all the Kimpton properties and have recommended them to out of town visitors.

I told them that I lived next door. I was hoping they would give me a decent rate but instead the manager comped me. He showed me a picture on his Blackberry of my building in flames.

While all this was going on, I had updated my Twitter and Facebook feeds. An outpouring of concern filled my iPhone. Friends asked how I was, shared how they had seen the fire, if they could do anything, if I needed a place to stay. It was incredibly moving.

Unfortunately, my iPhone wasn’t fully charged and it soon died. There’s a perverse thrill you get with disaster. It seems like a crazy adventure – locked out of my apartment! I get to stay at the Helix! Fire trucks! Streets shut down!

But then my phone powered down and I couldn’t talk to anyone. Real worry set in.

I didn’t sleep and walked back early the next morning. Entering my apartment and seeing it exactly as I left it was a moment of incredible relief.

Others were not so fortunate. They have to deal with homes now wrecked by smoke and water. I really didn’t know how bad the fire was until I saw the video of people being rescued from the upper floors of my building. I can’t imagine their terror.

Lessons Learned

1. Social Media is Great but Better to Have Good Neighbors

John Hanshaw, who lives two blocks away, told me about the fire. Later on, I commiserated and shared information with my neighbors, people who I had shared small-talk with in the elevator. Friends who lived in DC offered me a place to stay. People called to check in on me. The Helix Hotel put me up, recognizing that they were part of the community.

2. Location Doesn’t Matter

Who confirmed the fire for me? Neil Torda, who lives hundreds of miles away but was sitting in front of a computer.

3. Social Media is Indispensable

I tweeted so that friends and family instantly knew that I was okay. Having parents on Facebook can be occasionally awkward but at least my status updates alleviated their worry.

4. Social Media is News

A three-alarm fire in Washington is big news. How was this story covered? Social media informed the coverage each step of the way. As you can see from this TBD page, updates came in about the fire in real-time and included pictures, videos and tweets from reporters, displaced residents, neighbors, tourists, local blogs and the DC Fire Department. Information came from not just media, but people caught up in the event.

5. You Need an Emergency Plan

Leaving my apartment yesterday, I had no idea that I’d have to find another place to stay for the night. “Go to the Helix” is really not a good emergency plan… It would’ve been nice if I had a pre-arranged place to go, with at least a toothbrush and a change of clothes.

6. Charge Your Phone!

I didn’t think I’d be out long so my iPhone wasn’t fully charged. Yet, this was how I communicated with the world and found needed information. When it died, I was essentially lost. For emergencies, your phone is like a digital life preserver.

Things could’ve been so much worse. I’m thankful they weren’t.

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