FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate doesn’t pretend to be the biggest proponent of social media or even technology in general. “I don’t care about the technology, what I care about is what people use to communicate, the information they share and things they are doing that can help me make a better decision faster–not necessarily more accurate, but faster—to change outcomes,” he said during a February 3 presentation the Tech@State conference.
That is the question emergency managers must always ask: How will what I’m doing change the outcome? Technology can be a great tool, Fugate acknowledged, but when it comes down to it, it’s simply more information. “We’re only talking information, nothing has moved. No Tweet stops bleeding, right?” Fugate said.
It’s easy to get caught up in the wealth of information generated from social media platforms like Twitter, but the key is determining what data points emergency managers are receiving from social media and how that will help them make decisions to reach their desired outcomes.
Learning how to harness social media has been challenging for FEMA, and remains a work in progress. After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA assumed that one of the reasons it got so behind in its response was because officials didn’t know how bad the situation was on the ground, says Fugate. Based on that assumption, the agency began focusing on getting good assessments before responding. But, argued Fugate, that approach was flawed because it takes too much time to get people into disaster areas to assess and relay information back to Washington. “If you’re waiting to react to the aftermath of an event until you have a formal assessment, you’re going to lose 12-to-24 hours,” said Fugate. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be waiting for that. Perhaps we should make the assumption that if something bad happens, it’s bad. Speed in response is the most perishable commodity you have.”
Determining the severity of a disaster is where social media comes into play. During the devastating tornadoes that hit the Southeast in May 2011, leveling towns like Joplin, Missouri, Fugate said he was actively monitoring Twitter to get a sense of the devastation. When Tweets started increasing rapidly in quantity and coming in from many different geographic areas, that prompted Fugate to put FEMA into action. “All I need is enough information to hit my tipping point, I don’t need a lot of information,” he said. When members of his team pointed out that the state hadn’t requested assistance and weren’t reporting widespread devastation, Fugate responded that they’re likely too busy responding to this catastrophe and that FEMA has enough information to act and start moving its people.
“We looked at social media as the public telling us enough information to suggest this was worse than we thought and to make decisions to spend [taxpayer] money to get moving without waiting for formal request, without waiting for assessments, without waiting to know how bad because we needed to change that outcome,” he said.
Fugate also emphasized that using social media as an information source isn’t a precise science and the response isn’t going to be precise either. “Disasters are like horseshoes, hand grenades and thermal nuclear devices, you just need to be close—preferably more than less,” he said.
Using social media as a tool for emergency managers requires a change in mindset for many in the government sector, he said. “We have to train ourselves that if want to make social media real, we have to recognize the public is a resource, not a liability,” he said. The government’s way of communicating in the past was similar to yelling into a megaphone, but Fugate argued that officials need to start listening so they can change outcomes based on what people are saying.
“We have to learn how to communicate the way the people we are trying to help communicate and have to learn how to listen to them and quit looking at the public and the people we are trying to help as liabilities and look at them as resources,” he said.
You can watch Fugate’s presentation in entirety here. You can follow Administrator Fugate on Twitter: @CraigatFEMA. Emergency managers also can follow the hashtag: #SMEM on Twitter to learn more about using social media in emergency management.
~Leischen Stelter, Social Media Coordinator for Public Safety at American Military University