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The leadership of Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOST) and other Digital Communities have been meeting monthly to discuss some of the key aspects of this evolving resource. Part of the valuable discussions that occur each month include brief summaries of activations and lessons learned that might be applicable for other teams.

This past Friday, I was struck by some of the lessons and thought that they could be valuable to all agencies who are using social media in their emergency management missions. Without going into huge detail about all of the VOST missions, here is what we’re beginning to see:

  • You don’t necessarily need a pre-built audience for your social media messaging.  If you build it, people will find you when they need the information.  The speed at which audiences are built, during crisis situations, is astonishingly fast.  For example, in Colorado pre-shooting, @AuroraPD went from having 300 Twitter followers to over 11,000 in about one day.  Of course, having your accounts set up prior to your next emergency will put you steps ahead of creating your social footprint from scratch during the incident.
  • When you are managing information across a regional incident (involving more than one jurisdiction), remember that the Facebook audiences are really interested in hyperlocal information.  While a website may be able to provide separate pages for local incidents, combining the messaging across Facebook may be a bit difficult.
  • Defining mission scope and requirements are very important for using a virtual team.  For emergency managers and incident commanders, consider what you want from a virtual team.  When it comes to the internet, there are likely some specific things you would like to know.  The more specific you can be in what you’re looking for, the easier it is to determine if you have access to the skill sets necessary to accomplish that mission.
  • While you might be using free tools like to blog, there may be additional functionality that will cost you some money.  For example, using a self-hosted site allows different functionality for what your website can do.
  • Monitoring social media for law enforcement intelligence is a little bit different than monitoring for natural disasters.  While you can find just about anything online, unfortunately, when it comes to crime-based issues, the “bad guys” may also be watching you back.  Ensuring operational security is important in situations like these.
  • Use of a virtual team can illustrate the power of social media for agencies that are still not quite sure about whether there is value in its use both for pulling data from the social media streams and amplifying the messages that you are seeking to push to your audience.

These are just a couple of the lessons that have popped out over the last month or two.  If you are using social media, being aware of these lessons should help you work through some of these issues in advance of your next emergency.

For additional information on Virtual Operations Support Teams, check out the following websites:


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