Getting the Word Out – Alberta Floods
By Jason Low
Until recently, most posts on Redwood Meadows Emergency Services’ (RMES) social media pages informed our fans and followers that we were responding to a call, or showed off photos of training, incidents or fun stuff, such as when one of the probationary firefighters got his helmet caught in the air-horn lanyard on the new engine.
By Jason Low
Until recently, most posts on Redwood Meadows Emergency Services’ (RMES) social media pages informed our fans and followers that we were responding to a call, or showed off photos of training, incidents or fun stuff, such as when one of the probationary firefighters got his helmet caught in the air-horn lanyard on the new engine. In late June, all that changed when RMES found itself in the midst of the fourth major flood in the past 20 years.
Posts to RMES Twitter and Facebook feeds are handled by either the fire chief or the communications officer. Most posts are generic – “We are responding to a medical emergency in Bragg Creek.” If the incident is on a road or highway, or if the location is pertinent to the public, we post that information – for example, a motor vehicle collision that blocks a highway.
News media and similar organizations (such as Alberta Motor Association Road Reports and 511 Alberta) follow our Twitter feed and retweet our information to their own followers. Many people in our area follow these organizations, and we can therefore rapidly deliver information that impacts our residents.
On June 18, before the flooding that ravaged our district and other parts of southern Alberta, RMES had fewer than 150 likes, or Facebook followers. By June 26, the count was up to 332 (the numbers for Twitter are more difficult to identify, but they made a similar jump). Analytics on Facebook show that 458 people commented on, shared, or posted information relating to the department in the week of June 19 to June 25, and more than 13,000 people saw our content.
Posts during the floods included everything from incidents that were ongoing to regular updates on the status of the mitigation activities in each town – for example, repairing the river berm in Redwood Meadows, or updating road closures in the Bragg Creek area – to evacuation orders and shelter information. Posts made by other entities, such as the Townsite of Redwood Meadows, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, the County of Rocky View, and others, were also shared. In turn, our followers reposted this information for their followers to see. The propagation of the information was profound – people as far away as the United Kingdom were aware of the situation back home by way of social media.
The first flood crisis-related post was sent out at 8:24 a.m. on June 20 via the fire department’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/rmesfire); as mentioned, posts on Facebook are automatically sent out over Twitter (@RMESFire): “INCIDENT ALERT – Redwood Meadows is recommending a voluntary evacuation of all residents north of the “short berm” north of Manyhorses Circle. Water levels in the area are rising to dangerous levels. Watch this page for more information.”
At 3:24 p.m., RMES sent out: “Roads in the Bragg Creek area are impassable. RMES recommends sheltering in place where possible.” A follower responded on Facebook asking for clarification as the media and other official entities had claimed earlier that there was a mandatory evacuation in place. We responded: “RMES recommends that people stay put at this time as it is unsafe to travel through Bragg Creek hamlet.”
At 10:19 p.m., to provide some kind of update for people to take comfort in, we posted: “Crews continue to work at RMES throughout the night. If you are safe and out of danger, please shelter in place. If you have any concerns at all about your safety, do call 911.”
At 3:44 a.m. on June 21, during our own evacuation from the fire station, we posted this message via the Facebook Pages Manager smartphone app, which, again, posted to both Facebook and Twitter: “Redwood may experience a total berm failure near the playground on Redwood Meadows Drive within the hour. RMES crews have relocated to Banded Peak School. If you are still in Redwood Meadows, you must leave. Residents should go to Springbank Park For All Seasons.”
A reply to that post later in the morning asked: “Would really like to hear some updates on this as well. Any news? Either way, everyone really can’t thank you all enough for all your work.” Our response: “The berm has held so far. Actions to reinforce it are underway now.”
In addition to all these posts, information provided on the Redwood Meadows townsite Facebook page, as well as by other agencies/entities and our own members on their personal Facebook pages – were reposted and/or retweeted in order to pass the information on. Even though fans and followers of our own page were potentially already seeing such information, sharing it encouraged them to share it with their own Facebook friends.
When a call was put out for volunteers to help fill and place sandbags in Redwood Meadows to reinforce the berm, the volunteer response was so overwhelming that we eventually had to turn people away. This was posted at that point: “We’ve now got enough volunteers in Redwood Meadows, thanks to all. Anyone else looking to help out should meet at the Bragg Creek Community Centre, at 23 White Ave. – we’re told there is an organized group massing there.” In short order, large numbers of people were in Bragg Creek assisting residents and store owners in the central hamlet region to recover property and clean up the debris and damage.
Even after most of a crisis has passed, there is still benefit to ongoing communication. On June 24, when almost all urgent responses and reactions had subsided, people were being allowed back home, and the water-treatment plant had been restarted, we posted: “Morning folks. The water plant in Redwood is functional again. Please remember to use only what you need as it will take time to build up a reserve, and there is a boil-water advisory in place until the quality can be confirmed.”
The unique benefit to social media is that it is a two-way street; you can deliver information to your residents and customers, but at the same time, your residents, and in fact anyone, can provide intelligence that you can exploit in any number of ways.
Another element to remember in tweets (and, now, Facebook posts too) is that you can use hash tags to allow your posts to be easily searched or referenced by your audience (not only your followers but also anyone on the social media networks). For example, incidents on a highway or affecting travel in Alberta are commonly tagged with the hash tag #ABroads. Entities such as the Alberta Motor Association, 511 Alberta (which is the provincial government’s group helping to aggregate and alert on traffic issues), and the media outlets that have traffic reports will watch for this tag and report on posts using it. So, when responding to, or clearing from, a motor vehicle collision, for example, we try to use the #ABroads hash tag. Hash tags can be made up on the spot, simply by typing the pound (or hash) sign and then a string of characters of your choosing. Some might be humorous reflections by the poster, such as #whydidIcometoworktoday, while others serve the purpose of identifying important posts, such as #abflood.
We learned, after the crisis was over, that there is a term for using social media in disaster and similar situations: Social Media in Emergency Management, or SMEM. Quite a few agencies are learning about this quickly, and stumbling across hurdles as they go. For example, Calgary Police’s Twitter feed was automatically curtailed by Twitter when the number of tweets in a given period was reached (ironically, this is known in social media circles as a “flood”). RMES is far from coming upon that kind of barrier, but it’s something to keep in mind if you intend to use these tools to reach the public.
Some agencies are reluctant to join the social media wave, and either have no connection at all to any social media platforms or use them very minimally. Others seem to understand the benefits and provide as much information as they can. Freedom of information and protection of privacy issues need not be a concern – for example, Toronto Fire sends out information automatically from its computer-aided dispatch system on every call it attends, while omitting details such as the specific medical concern or the exact address of a building fire (instead providing the nearest intersection). These updates go to both an official web page (www.toronto.ca/fire/cadinfo/livecad.htm) that displays the incidents and which units are on the call, as well as a number of Twitter accounts; @tofire relays information for all incidents, or users can choose to monitor certain districts of the city (@tofireS, for example, for the south district), or only confirmed fires (@tofire2).
As for lessons learned go, the use of social media in an emergency situation has the potential to consume one person’s focus entirely. If your agency intends to use social media during a protracted, large-scale incident, consider detailing a person, perhaps your public information officer’s aide if you are rich enough in personnel to have one, to attend to this alone. Also, it would be of huge benefit to install a program such as TweetDeck or HootSuite, or a similar social media dashboard, on your computer. During the flooding, I was trying to manage our Facebook page, my own Twitter account, and the RMES Twitter account from their web page interfaces. There were a number of mentions (posts in which people named @RMESFire) that I missed. Had I been running TweetDeck as I do at home, I could have had an entire column of the software dedicated to people mentioning @RMESFire in their posts, and would have been able to more swiftly respond to those mentions.
The inclusion of social media in your department’s operational plans should not be restricted to providing press releases in 140 characters. Communicating about emergencies and other events – such as your training or what your members do off the clock – is just as important for building a rapport with the public. As mentioned above, don’t forget about the other side of the street – while the time has not yet come when we will respond to 911 calls from Twitter, we can still obtain a tremendous amount of valuable information by monitoring our customers’ tweets and Facebook posts in times of crisis.
Jason Low is a 22-year veteran of Redwood Meadows Emergency Services, currently serving as the communications officer. He is an avid amateur radio operator and radio communications hobbyist and a computer enthusiast. When Low is not tweeting about RMES activities, he works for the City of Calgary’s Public Safety Communications division as an emergency dispatcher.