Creative Commons via blog.volunteerspot.com

Not only has National Volunteer Week just ended, but today is also Earth Day. Why are these two concepts important? Because volunteers no longer provide face-to-face service, but the realization is growing that digital volunteers can provide an incredible service to emergency managers across the globe.

The Earth Day theme of “Mobilize the Earth” should be something that every emergency manager considers when they evaluate how to manage the burgeoning flow of information during crisis.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to participate, as a digital volunteer, to support Oklahoma during their threatening tornado weather.  After receiving a tweet from the leader of the OKVOST team for additional assistance, I assembled a team of other other volunteers who focused on the following missions:

  • Retweet/Share official information from a set of “official sources.”  In this situation, we were provided with a specific Twitter account to use to retweet and share information.
  • Look for inaccurate information within Twitter and seek to correct info in a timely manner.
  • Collect damage assessment pictures or links.
  • Provide an archive of two hashtags.

It was a lot of fun to work on this incident.  We watched the localized National Weather Service Chat, compared that to livestreamed media reporting and watched the messages make their way to Twitter.  The situation was very dynamic and information that was merely 5 minutes old was being outdated by newer and fresher information.

Our team of 7 folks worked from about 5p on Saturday until 2a on Sunday morning PST.   I owe a huge debt of gratitude to team members Bill Smith (@emrgncytraffic), Joanna Lane (@joannalane), Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt (@theredelm), Scott Reuter (@sct_r), Chris Hall (@thefiretracker2), and Pascal Schuback (@schuback).  Thanks to John Butler (@okcalvin) and Lloyd Colston (@kc5fm) for asking us to help.  And thanks to Christine Thompson (@redcrossmom) for some Sunday morning assistance to locate additional damage pictures.

Through this experience, I learned some key lessons that might be helpful to others:

If you are a Virtual Team Leader:

  • Clarify the mission needs in advance of activating the team.  Because people are interested in the activation, you could find more than one person communicating with the person activating the team.  Retain clear lines of communication between the person requesting the team and the leader of the virtual team.
  • Institute a data collection process early in each incident even if you are only tasked with monitoring social media.  You don’t want to tread the same ground repeatedly when team members come & go during a mission.
  • Ensure that your data collection process has a “parking lot” for capturing lessons learned.  It’s much harder to recall them after the incident if you haven’t made many notes during the incident.
  • Begin thinking about the shift schedule right away.  Even if you are trained to work 12-hour in-person shifts, working on a computer offers a different level of eye strain and dynamic situations can wear someone down easily in 4-6 hours.  Ensure that your team is taking breaks and begin recruiting for replacements, even if they are not needed, so that folks can stay fresh and alert during an emergency.
  • Be attentive to time-zone differences.  In this situation, information was moving so quickly that we found ourselves encouraging the public to put timestamps on tweets.  And, because few of our team members were from the actual crisis time-zone, we found it difficult at times to keep our own times straight on tweets.
  • Pre-Affiliate with an Emergency Operations Center or Incident Management Team before a crisis occurs.  If the efforts of your team are not integrated into the emergency response or recovery, it could be arguable as to whether your activities are truly being helpful.  You may still be citizens-helping-citizens, but you may not actually amplifying the messages that could be helpful to your local emergency responders.

If you are an Emergency Manager or Incident Commander, preparing to use a digital team:

  • Know where you want your information to go inside of the emergency response.  Are you aiming for integration into the response or recovery phase of your incident?  If you are aiming for response-level integration, be sure that your Planning and PIO protocols include & assume a virtual support team.
  • Think, in advance, about the types of tasks & missions that you would like the digital team to complete.  The more information that you can provide the team leader, the better results you will achieve in its activation.
  • Identify an in-house liaison to your virtual team.  Having an on-site person who is seeing what is occurring inside the Emergency Operations Center or incident will help guide and clarify what your virtual team is seeing from their vantage point.
  • Ensure that your EOC is preaffiliated with a virtual team.  Whether you grow a team yourself or you have a regional team in place, know who and how you can reach out and activate your local team.
  • Consider what pre-staged resources you might want to have in place that might be useful to a virtual off-site team.  Are there key resources you use regularly for protective action messaging or official accounts that you may want a virtual team to manage during the incident?
  • Follow up with your virtual team after the incident to identify and incorporate the lessons learned from each response.  With social media evolving and changing as quickly as it does, virtual team support changes as well with each incident that occurs.

There are a number of groups that are actively developing digital support teams.  They include:

The challenge for each of these groups will be to develop, nurture and deploy virtual assistance that is known, able to activate in a timely manner upon request, provide predictable outcomes, possesses relevant skills and can be easily incorporated into any disaster response.

Having been a participant observer of a VOST team during the SMEM Camp in 2011, an activator of a virtual team to support my #140ConfNW and team leader this past weekend, it is exciting to see the growth and skill sets that can be made available to an emergency manager if they have key relationships in place.

If you are an emergency manager who is still “on the fence” about social media, I will suggest that trying to figure out how to obtain social media support during your crisis is the last thing you will want to do and yet, it could be your lifeline to your public’s perception of your response and a community that could more easily take care of itself if only you engage with it.

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