How Twitter and Instagram Could Help Inform Local Disaster Response Efforts

Oneida County,  New York, counts flooding as its No. 1 natural hazard.

Oneida County, New York, counts flooding as its No. 1 natural hazard. Doug Kerr /


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State and local emergency management agencies are looking for new ways to monitor and use information posted on social media.

Flooding is the No. 1 natural hazard in Oneida County, according to Joseph Hernon, the deputy director for the county’s Department of Emergency Services.

Located in central New York, east of Syracuse, Oneida is about 1,212 square miles and has roughly 232,000 residents. During the summer of 2013, floods inundated areas in and around the county. Muddy water poured onto the streets of towns destroying dozens of homes, damaging hundreds of others and leaving thousands of residents without power.

Hernon wasn’t working for the Department of Emergency Services when the floods hit. But he explained that when this type of natural disaster occurs “situational awareness is critical” for emergency managers “and can really change our ability to save lives and property.”

With this in mind, officials in Oneida are beginning to seek new ways to take advantage of a potentially rich source of information, which tends to flow freely during widespread emergency situations: social media. The county is not alone. Across the U.S., jurisdictions and agencies are looking to refine how they monitor, and use, the often vast amounts of information publicly shared on the Internet during natural disasters, emergencies and large-scale planned events.

“Especially in storms, that’s the first thing people will do,” Hernon said, “They’re going to go to their window and they’re going to take a picture.” This is despite the fact, he pointed out, that it’s often advisable to avoid windows during severe weather. In any event, when a big storm strikes, there’s a strong possibility that images of flooded streets or water-filled basements will end up online.

“They’re going to tweet, Instagram, hashtag, and Facebook all of that,” Hernon said.

Along with 911 calls for service, tweets and other online posts, which are sometimes geographically tagged, can help to create a fuller picture of hard-hit areas, while also highlighting emerging problems and misinformation that might be taking root on the Internet.

“People on social media are putting everything out there for you,” Hernon said. “It’s just a matter of us going out there and grabbing it.”

Getting More Eyes on Twitter, Yik Yak and Vine

A core part of many social media monitoring efforts is what’s called a Virtual Operations Support Team, or a VOST. These teams are usually staffed by volunteers who might range from Ham radio hobbyists, to emergency managers looking to help out neighboring jurisdictions.

VOST members may, or may not, live near the places their team serves. They typically work together over the Internet, congregating in forums like Skype chatrooms and collaborating with tools such as Google Docs. It would not be unheard of for a volunteer in New Zealand to help monitor social media posts related to a wildfire in the western U.S.

“If somebody’s enthusiastic and they have basic social media skills, we’re happy to train them up,” said Scott Reuter, who leads a VOST in Oregon and is also an instructor for courses on how to use social media for disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

How VOSTs get activated, and their responsibilities, can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the type of event taking place. But, in general, the team’s goal will be to scour social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram looking for information that might help incident managers. Teams might also search comments on news media websites, video shared with applications like Vine and posts on anonymous platforms such as Yik Yak.

Nathan Hunerwadel, is a communications specialist with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, who manages the state’s VOST. He noted that it’s often not realistic for one person at an agency, or even a handful of staff members, to track social media during an emergency or major planned event, while also keeping up with other responsibilities.

“The biggest benefit to using a virtual operations support team on your incident is that there will be eyes on the social media content that you otherwise would not have,” he said.

Like a Request for Sandbagging Assistance

Using social media to help inform emergency management is not new a new concept. It’s been happening in various forms in the U.S. for at least the past five or six years. Currently, however, there is a push among some state and local governments for more systematic monitoring practices.

Colorado is widely considered to have one of the country’s more advanced VOST programs.

Dubbed COVOST, the team currently has a pool of about 40 volunteers, though it’s unlikely they would all participate in a monitoring effort at one time. The VOST is set up to work virtually and does not meet at a physical location when an incident takes place. Each member is required to undergo a background check and asked to participate in monthly online training seminars.

“It lends credibility to the team,” Hunerwadel said of the training. “We want to make sure that, now that it’s an official resource that agencies can request, they know what they’re getting.”

State and local agencies can ask for assistance from COVOST. Hunerwadel said that one of the state’s goals has been to create a system where agencies can seek support from the team in the same way they’d go about requesting other types of emergency resources.

“Just like an individual agency on the local jurisdictional level might request assistance from the state for sandbagging,” he said, “they can also request this team through the same formal process.” Hunerwadel added: “A lot of VOSTs are moving in that direction.”

Once activated, if the VOST finds important information they forward it to the team manager, typically Hunerwadel, who then passes it along to a point of contact on the agency’s incident command staff.

“We don’t take any action with any of the information that we provide,” Hunerwadel said. “We find the information through publicly available content, and then we share it with the local jurisdiction, and then it’s up to them to decide how, and if, they’re going to respond to it.”

This workflow, he said, provides a delineation between the team’s activities and the responsibilities of public information officers, who normally handle communications with the press and public for government agencies.

“There is no risk of handing over your Twitter account, or handing over your Facebook account to another agency or to volunteers you’ve never met,” Hunerwadel added. “You’re simply depending on those volunteers to feed you information.”

The team has activated seven times during the last two years, according to the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The first activation was in September 2013, when floods wreaked havoc on communities in Colorado. More recently, COVOST provided support for Eagle County during a major ski competition in February. And for the University of Colorado Boulder’s Police Department during the cannabis-related festivities that took place in the state on April 20, marking an event known to marijuana enthusiasts as “420.”

Trying it Out at the Boilermaker

Earlier this month, a group of graduate students at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs completed a guidebook on social media monitoring practices. They authored the guide for Region 4 of the New York State Office of Emergency Management, which includes Oneida County. While conducting their research, the students spoke with people familiar with VOSTs and social media monitoring practices throughout the U.S.

Asked about how she believed VOSTs were proving useful, Amanda Vitullo, one of the students who worked on the report, said she’d seen examples of how the teams were effective for spotting rumors that might gain traction online during emergency situations.

She also sees VOSTs as “very helpful in figuring out public sentiment” towards an emergency response.

Hernon, in Oneida County, said his department is planning to try out some of the strategies discussed in the guidebook during an upcoming foot racing event called “The Boilermaker.”

Initially at least, he said the department would turn to 911 dispatchers and county employees who handle social media for other agencies to help staff a monitoring team.

What will they look for? He said that depends. It could be anything from people tweeting about poor road conditions somewhere along the course to a pattern of posts about dehydration, indicating that the race organizers should get more water to the after-party.

Up until now, the county’s work with social media monitoring has been very limited. But Hernon said: “If we seem to get it to work in this kind of environment, in this preplanned event world, it would really open up some great opportunities for trying to do this during a storm.”

After completing the research for the guidebook, Vitullo, the graduate student at Syracuse, sees plenty of potential in what VOSTs can help accomplish.

“There’s such a wealth of information that’s out there that’s just not being used,” she said.

(Photo by Doug Kerr /

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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