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Volunteer Vision: February 2015

You cannot mention the word communication today without a focus on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (and the list goes on) are playing greater roles in our lives. In the past we relied on mainstream media to report the news and inform us of events. Today everyone with an electronic device is photographer, reporter, complainer, and helper. But the public can be a valued communicator too, especially during an emergency.

February 5, 2015
By Vince MacKenzie

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In the November issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, I mentioned my participation in an international exercise on the role of social media in local emergency management. More specifically, it was an exercise in the effectiveness of the digital volunteer – a social media-savvy spectator recruited to help filter and provide information. The exercise was conducted in Halifax Nov. 18 to 20 by Public Safety Canada and the International Safety Research Inc., along with the U.S. department of Homeland Security, local emergency response agencies such as the Red Cross, and provincial and municipal emergency-management agencies; it was designed around the scenario of an intense hurricane hitting the Halifax region during peak tourism season.

The exercise focused on social-media convergence and the uses of the digital volunteer in real-world emergencies. Questions were raised such as: should emergency management officials at the community level put trust into what the public tweets and posts to various social media platforms? If so, how do officials capture credible information that will actually assist and make local-emergency plans run smoother?

I have always believed that social media has a place in the fire service. Participating in the exercise proved that fact beyond any doubt. The public’s appetite for knowledge and information is large, especially during a real or perceived crisis.

Social media has increased response-time pressure on emergency services because when disaster strikes, everyone within the affected area can instantly report to the outside through text and pictures of what is actually happening.

During the exercise, conference participants acted as the public by randomly posting real information to social media so that the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was overrun with information. People now use social media to ask for help during emergencies, so, as you can well imagine, the flood of localized requests becomes overwhelming to those who run the EOC. But those posts on social media can be answered by the public as well. Community members who are in the area and are plugged in to social media can provide help, sometimes before the emergency services has time to respond.

Digital volunteers, ideally, operate in volunteer social-media listening groups called virtual operations support teams (VOSTs). VOSTs allow digital volunteers to view and listen to the public’s messaging, sort out what’s important and credible, and pass that on to the EOC. VOSTs can also amplify official messages from authorities. The only VOST currently operating in Canada is a national group called CanVOST (Canadian Virtual Operations Support Team), headed by Patrice Cloutier, a crisis communications specialist with the Ontario government. In my opinion, all fire chiefs should become familiar with CanVOST and learn more about its potential (www.ptsc-online.ca/canvost).

We learned a few things during the experiment. For one, the driving force behind any good communication system is the quality of the people involved. So for fire chiefs, I think the recognition of the credible digital volunteer is crucial. Another lesson was that co-ordination among digital volunteers and agencies and municipalities is critical. Information comes in so fast and in such abundance that listening and viewing it becomes key. Of course, there isn’t enough time for command personnel to be engaged in actively listening to social media in order to recognize trends and issues, so they must rely on established volunteer groups and corporations to bring them timely information on the issues being posted on social media.

When hundreds of pieces of information are coming in, all reporting relatively the same thing, chances are that particular information is credible, and it will usually highlight a pressing community need.

We have a lot to learn about social media in the emergency-management world. I for one am a little excited about the opportunities available in this era of emergency management.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at firechief@grandfallswindsor.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince


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