Social media in a time of need

How the Red Cross and the Los Angeles Fire Department integrate social tools into crisis response.

The Red Cross and the Los Angeles Fire Department have been at the forefront of adopting social media in crisis response. That’s not entirely by choice, given that news of disasters has consistently broken first on Twitter. The challenge is for the men and women entrusted with coordinating response to identify signals in the noise.

Public expectations for those staff are high, as research released by the Red Cross on at the Emergency Social Data Summit last year showed. Nearly half of respondents ask for help on social media and 3 in 4 would expect help to arrive within the hour. “We’ve set up an expectation that, because we’re present in these spaces, we’re listening,” said Wendy Harman (@wharman), the Red Cross social media director, at a training conference in Tampa, Fla.

At present, those high expectations don’t always match up with the capabilities that first responders possess. That’s changing. First responders and crisis managers are using a growing suite of tools for gathering information and sharing crucial messages internally and with the public. Structured social data and geospatial mapping suggest one direction where these tools are evolving in the field. Prototype group-messaging platforms like point to ways they may evolve further this year.

Some tools, such as the Red Cross shelter web app and the Shelter View iOS app, allow the public to access information. “If we’re going to ask the public for help in a disaster, we need to give them tools,” said Trevor Riggen (@triggen), senior director at the Red Cross.

The Red Cross is working on building better filtering tools and mapping geotagged updates to help improve their situational awareness, said Riggen. By aggregating crisis data, visualization, and analysis into operations, they’re pressing the opportunity to see where issues are emerging and introducing more relevance into social streams. “One tweet doesn’t tell us to shift,” said Riggens. “50 tweets will.”

The opportunity that more crisis managers are seeing lies in the situational awareness that comes from analyzing massive amounts of social data generated in disasters. In those moments, “the public is a resource, not a liability,” said FEMA administrator Craig Fugate (@CraigAtFEMA) last year. “Social media’s biggest power, that I see, is to empower the public as a resource.”

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Managing online crisis response at the LAFD

Long before the Red Cross joined Twitter and used it in the Haiti earthquake response, Brian Humphrey (@brianhumphrey) of the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) was already online, listening.

“The biggest gap directly involves response agencies and the Red Cross,” said Humphrey, who currently serves as the LAFD’s public affairs officer. “Through social media, we’re trying to narrow that gap between response and recovery to offer ‘real-time relief’.”

Humphrey, who officially added the @LAFD account to Twitter in 2007 may well have been the first emergency responder on the service. In the following video, he talks more about how technology has changed during his career and how the LAFD is using various social platforms.

For instance, Humphrey found a use for Foursquare that goes beyond a simple check-in: real-time sourcing for a given location. If he hears about an issue in the greater Los Angeles area, Humphrey looks on Foursquare to see who’s checked in near there and reaches out to them to learn more about the conditions on the ground. Any relevant information is then passed along to operational staff responding to the incident.

In a second interview, below, Humphrey offers some of his best practices for online crisis communication. Currently, his department operates more than 80 social media accounts, many of which are populated using email. The LAFD is also using lightweight audio creation tools, like Cinch, to distribute reports. New social platforms don’t replace existing communication infrastructure like the radio or broadcast television — they complement them.

While the tools may change, the goals have not: responders learn what’s happening in the community, share relevant information, and protect those in need. What’s shifted is that in an age where people are increasingly equipped with camera phones and Internet connections, citizens can become sensors in disasters. As more platforms like the recent geolocation app that connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims come online, keeping those ears on will continue to grow in importance.


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  • Excellent post, Alex.
    I appreciate that you took the time
    to present people like Brian Humphrey (@BrianHumphrey) of LAFD* and @LAFDTalk, as well as Wendy Harman from @RedCross,
    and that you discussed such relevant,
    interesting questions!

    I believe we’re watching a sea change in how emergency services are woven into our society,
    through their very communication and integration with citizens served.

    * I’ve been on Twitter since the “beta” period in 2006. As far as I know, the @LAFD account that
    Brian created, was a pioneering entrance into “social” or new media; a prescient investment of time.

    Follow @WHarman and @RedCross to see how she creates a [real] sense of community, and is then aided by that community when the RedCross
    springs into action during crises.

    And of course, follow the author Alex Howard at @Digiphile

  • @LAFD is indeed the oldest government agency (at least for the accounts added in, with the Twitter API delivering a creation date of 3/9/07:

  • Actually, social media is really a useful tool for us internet users. We are able to communicate without even noticing the distance and the time. Now, social media is part of the society and the culture as well. Nice article post for this matter.

  • Excellent news… and thanks for sharing it. We’ve seen how Twitter can save lives and it really came in handy in times of emergency. Now, who can say that social networking is a fad? I think that Twitter is a level up to how we communicate info these days – faster and better than the usual. It’s always Twitter that’s first to break the news so why not use it for good?

  • Magnus

    There is a New York based company called City24/7 ( that is worth mentioning on this topic. They’re building a broadcast network that will deliver urgent messages to screens located on the city streets in times of emergency. Otherwise, the screens deliver daily messages with city information relevant to your location within the city (events, happenings, coupons, etc). This project has got Bloomberg legacy written all over it! This youtube vid does a decent job of explaining the emergency messaging system.

  • BB McSweeney

    Great article, and thanks Magnus. That’s a very cool use of new technologies.

    Personally love playing with social media, but the superficiality of it all is making me a bit crazy.
    Too much Sheen and silly badges.

    Love seeing the LAFD and now the NYPD actually use these new tools for something that matters. Bravo to both.