Emergency managers use Twitter to distribute storm information
April 23, 2010
Emergency management departments are slowly embracing the world of tweets.
What's commonly referred to as social media is evolving into another tool for emergency management officials to alert the public about threats from approaching storms or other disasters.
Emergency management departments in Hillsborough and Pinellas and the state Division of Emergency Management are using Twitter as another way to get information to people.
Twitter is a way for people to exchange brief messages instantly over computers and smartphones or newer versions of cell phones.
"Our goal was to provide information to the general public and use it as another way to get information out," said Lauren McKeague, spokeswoman for the state Division of Emergency Management that started using Twitter in September.
Adding Twitter to the traditional ways emergency managers reach the public such as television, newspapers and radio also could contact people who may not rely as much on traditional sources of information.
"This is also a way to reach out to a younger population who are interested in this thing and far more likely to be pulling this information off their cell phone," said Holley Wade, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Emergency Management.
Hillsborough quietly started using Twitter last year as a test of its usefulness, but the department will broaden use of the messaging network this coming hurricane season that starts June 1, she said.
With few emergencies, the messages have been more mundane and not frequent, such as cold shelters opening in Hillsborough during the January freezes. A weather radio transmitter out of service in February was the last post on the state Twitter page.
In Pinellas, the last message was on April 4 that the county's emergency management newsletter was available.
During an emergency, the information sent out on Twitter will include things like when an evacuation is set to begin, what shelters are open or where to get sandbags.
After the storm, locations for food, ice and water could be sent by Twitter.
"The information we're going to be putting out will be relevant to what's going on," Wade said.
The calm hurricane season of 2009 didn't allow agencies to really test the effectiveness of the new communication tool.
"Unfortunately the true test of what we do in emergency management is the actual event, which you don't want to see," Wade said.
The ability to receive Twitter messages, called tweets, over the newer cell phones such as a Blackberry or iPhone is an added advantage for emergency management agencies, said Tom Iovino, spokesman for Pinellas County where the emergency management agency started testing Twitter in August.
People can get information even if there's no power for their computers.
"One advantage is people can sign up to get the tweets on their cell phone and not have to be tied to a computer," Iovino said.
For example, evacuees could get updates on conditions such as a bridge closing while on the road, he said.
People have to sign up on Twitter to get messages from the emergency management departments. On Twitter, that's called becoming a follower or following.
The number so far for Hillsborough and Pinellas is fairly low. Hillsborough has only 128 with many being other emergency management agencies.
Pinellas has 571 with a mixture of private citizens, agencies and companies.
The state has 1,406 followers.
Those numbers could change if the Tampa Bay area looked to be the target of a hurricane.
"I have a feeling if we ever get into a serious situation it will grow. Until we actually see a real life situation we won't know what it can do," Iovino said.
A shortage of followers for the agencies can be partly overcome by Twitter's ability to let users send copies of a tweet to anyone following them called retweeting.
"There's this chain reaction that takes effect, passing on the information," Wade said.
Despite the potentially broad and instant reach of Twitter, the messages are limited to 140 characters, so detailed information would be hard to disperse. But it can be used to let people know where to find more details.
In addition to getting information out, the state sees Twitter as a way to receive information, McKeague said.
During an emergency, the state division monitors news Web sites and can add Twitter to the list. A feature on Twitter lets someone search for messages with specific words, such as Hurricane Bob and see all the messages with the word or phrase.
Monitoring the messages could provide information about conditions or damage emergency officials did not know about.
"It's something that provides us more situational awareness," McKeague said.
Emergency officials are embracing Twitter, but are less certain about Facebook, another social media powerhouse.
State and Pinellas emergency management officials are looking at how to use Facebook. Hillsborough emergency management has a Facebook page, but is still working out exactly how it would be used in a hurricane.
On the positive side, it can be used to give more information than Twitter, plus users can post photos and satellite images, Wade said.
But the public can also use Facebook to post information on the county's page.
"We'll have to take people away from things to monitor it and make sure people aren't posting things completely off base. There's definitely the possibility there for abuse. Also we don't want vendors posting ads," Wade said.
The state Division of Emergency Management has three Twitter sites:
To find Hillsborough County Emergency Management on Twitter: @hillsboroughem
To find Pinellas County Emergency Management on Twitter: @pinellasem
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