Social Media: Valuable Tool for Emergency Communication

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There is no worse feeling than being in a disaster and not being able to contact your loved ones. The feeling in your gut as you try to instant message, text or call your children to ensure they are safe…but you aren’t able to reach them.

What can you do to improve your ability to communicate with your family when disaster strikes? Social media is one of the tools that you may want to employ for emergency communication in addition to cell phones, amateur radio, and written contact information.

Advanced preparation is critical to success. Social media accounts must be established and connections created well in advance of a disaster.

Written contact information should include names and numbers of friends, daycare, school, employment, and anywhere else that any member of your family may hang out. Include the names and numbers of your children’s parents.

In this post, I will explore just how social media may make all the difference in locating your loved ones in an emergency.

Disaster Strikes Suddenly

As minutes pass and you cannot reach your loved ones, ideas you may never have entertained just moments before start to enter into your subconscious and then consume your conscious mind.

This is the case in a catastrophic disaster, such as an F5 tornado, when every necessity and comfort you normally enjoy is gone. No food. No water. No electricity. No shelter. No transportation.

With power down, you may not even be able to use your cell phone to find out if your family or friends are safe or to notify them that you are safe.

The new reality is that everything you took for granted just hours before, no longer exists. And it is anyone’s guess as to when everything will return to normal. I know because I have been there.

The purpose of this article is to share thoughtful strategies and tools that may enable you to communicate and cope better if it does happen to you and your loved ones.

Let’s examine a brief history of this technology and capability.

Historical Evidence – Social Media Helps Cope with Disaster

For all that is wrong with social media, the flip side is that it can be a life-saver and a comfort when you can use it to stay in touch with family members before, during, and after a disaster.

Social Media Success Stories

One of the best examples of social media reconnecting families, was after an F5 tornado struck Joplin, Missouri on May 11, 2011. Visit Social Media Lessons from the Joplin Tornado to see how effective social media can be for communicating in an emergency.

A mile-wide F5 tornado tore through Joplin, killing 158 people, and leveling the city. The mother and daughter team of Rebecca and Genevieve Williams immediately created a Facebook page, Joplin Tornado Info, to provide accurate information during the response to the disaster.

Using social media, they squelched rumors, answered questions, and directed people to help, including water, food, shelter, and tetanus shots.

The Reach of Social Media

As in the Joplin event, knowing how to post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to contact family members and friends is now essential.

In this event, hundreds of messages like this,

“…lookin for scott morris, chris miller, stormy miller, and chris elseworth. anyone that knows them from my joplin friends needs to help me find them

were posted by thousands of people searching for their missing loved ones.

In the past, we relied on the authorities to update us on conditions, what to do, or the fate of survivors. Now we can conduct those tasks using social media. It is particularly good at rapidly sending pleas for help and locating family and friends via a wide audience.

Remember, to access social media in a disaster, out-of-area contacts are critical. When geographically close family members are unable to contact each other, they can often contact relatives far away. These relatives, because they have power, can oftentimes contact other family members.

Let’s examine ways to connect with your family using social media during and after disaster strikes.

How to Connect Your Family Using Social Media

Each individual and family is unique, and so is their social media use. For disaster response and management, what is most important is not the social media platform you and your family choose, but that everyone knows how to use it when they need to.

Act now to ensure you have the social media platforms downloaded, used, tested and ready for the next disaster. Practice communicating with your family using social media regularly.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging (Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, or the one included with your cell phone) is particularly useful for immediate responses during and immediately after a disaster. Skype enables a group chat.

Disaster Relief Service Contractors

At first, LinkedIn may not appear to be that useful, but it is for unique disaster needs. For example, in many disasters, mobility is at a standstill until trees, debris and objects are removed from the roadway. Who does that? Skilled construction workers and tree removal experts. Where do you find them when you need them?

Search Engine Alternatives

Yes, you can use search engines, but LinkedIn may be a better choice to find one who is not overwhelmed, busy or not the right one for you. LinkedIn will provide details on such critical service contacts.

When my house burned down, we had great difficulty finding a builder to help us. And we were only one job. After a disaster, it is often hard to find contractors as they have already committed to other jobs. Using another nontraditional search engine, such as LinkedIn, can help identify and hire skilled professionals.

Best Social Media Platforms for Disaster Communications

The best social media and apps for you to use during and after a disaster are the ones you currently use with your family. You know them well, and in the heightened stress of a disaster, you do not need another thing to worry about.

Always include a few contacts who are out of your area or state. In a disaster environment, your local lines may be jammed or not working, but you can often reach someone out of your area.

By design, 9-1-1 calls will sometimes go through when all other calls will not.

Below are additional social media and Internet platforms options.

Apps 

You may want to research other apps that may be better for your needs. The best way is to enter a search term, Emergency apps, preparedness, disasters in a Google Play or the App Store. You can then identify, download and test apps that may be best suited to you.

Browsers

Download and use the less popular browsers like Brave and Firefox. Like most people, you can use Google, Bing, or Chrome but there are numerous social media platforms you can use for disaster communications.

By downloading and using multiple social media platforms, you have more choices available during and after a disaster.

Blogs

Many blogs have excellent tips, procedures, and useful disaster advice. Blogger and WordPress are two of the better-known platforms you can use. 

Do not overlook corporate blogs such as Constellation Disaster Preparedness or government blogs US Department of Agriculture.

As weather impacts EVERYTHING and especially disasters, follow meteorologist Mike Smith’s science-based weather blog: MSE Creative Consulting Blog.

Search Engines

DuckDuckGo, DogPile, Gibiru, Search Encrypt, StartPage, and other less known search engines do not invade your privacy like Google. They do not keep logs, sell data, or track you with cookies. And, they do not bring up similar ads to what you search to buy. Try them. I know you will enjoy all they offer…such as privacy.

Social Media Search Engines

Remember that social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn are also search engines. They can be used to identify people, products and services just like traditional search engines.

When Captain Scully landed his plane on the Hudson River, it was on Twitter an hour before the New York media. Twitter has provided faster real-time information on disasters than traditional media every time.

Podcasts

You can listen to podcasts while driving your car or doing yard work. Search for relevant podcasts by going to Stitcher or Podcasts to find disaster podcasts.

Here are a few natural disaster podcasts that may interest you: 

Securing Social Media to Maintain Privacy and Security

To use your social media when you need it, you must set them up and maintain them to protect your privacy and security. Be aware that hackers and other criminals are always probing your social media devices (cell phones, computers, tablets) to corrupt, steal, and sell your data.

You must also have a multi-layered strategy to protect your data and privacy. This is a big topic, but here are three simple rules to follow to maintain your privacy and security.

  1. Use difficult passwords
  2. Keep software, apps, and accounts updated
  3. Set privacy settings to limit access to those you wish to communicate with.

When Disaster Strikes — Implementing Your Social Media Connections

The key to implementing your social media connections when a disaster strikes, is to create, test, and use them BEFORE a disaster strikes. That sounds more simple than it is.

In this day of remarkable cell phones, where you download an app for every need, the ability to use both your cell phone and its apps when disaster strikes is assumed.

But everything changes in a disaster.

I know this because I have been through disasters. No disaster is worse than one that hits you and your family.

I have known the humiliation of standing in front of my, now destroyed house, as my burned wife was taken by a medical helicopter to a burn unit. I only realized that I was doing so in my underwear when a neighbor said, ‶Do you want a pair of my pants.‶

When I asked why, he replied, ‶Look down.‶

Only after I fled our house fire, having gotten my wife and sons out, did I realize I didn’t even have a pair of pants on. You can read my story at The Journal of Civil Defense.

When you are in a disaster, please don’t be like me, standing there with no clothes on, wondering if your wife will recover and where your kids will eat and sleep next. Take these simple and easy measures now to ensure that such a fate is not in your future.

Here are a few steps that may help.

Simple and Easy Social Media Steps to Take

By now, most people are familiar with how to use social media. However, they may not understand how dramatically social media access and use can change during and after a disaster. As with any area in life, forewarned is forearmed.

In a disaster, everything changes. Events unfold at a pace you cannot imagine. Hyper stress hits, and decisions that were easy a few minutes ago, are very difficult to make. Where just an hour ago you knew what to do, now you may not have any of the information you need to help make good decisions.

During and after a disaster, people reach out to friends and family for help in securing food, water, shelter, medical care, and transportation. Social media tools enable people to share this information immediately and effectively.

Social media is now vital to recovery efforts after disasters when infrastructure must be rebuilt and stress management is critical.

The extensive reach of social networks allows people who are recovering from disasters, to rapidly connect, talk, and share recovery resources.

Especially in large-scale disasters, when thousands are displaced from their homes and many have fled the disaster zone, people use social media to contact family and friends, post photos, share stories, and to give and get help.

Social media, through the internet, search engines, apps, instant messaging, social networking and photo sharing websites, provide readily available and efficient ways for family members to keep in touch and impart critical disaster-related information.

Remember you only need one communication app (your phone instant message app), one primary search engine (StartPage, for example) and one backup (perhaps DogPile). Master it.

In the stress of a disaster, it is best to stick to the basic apps and social media platforms you know and use.

Back-Up Power

First, do you have electric power? Do you have sufficient power to transmit your message, data, photos, and other communications? Every device will power down quickly when discharged. Therefore, you must have the ability to charge your devices outside of the electrical system you take for granted.

NOTE: All cell phones, apps, networks, servers, computers, tablets, etc. depend on ELECTRICITY. Natural disasters often disrupt the supply of electricity, and therefore the ability to use this technology.

Purchase external portable battery charging devices NOW. Include a solar version so you can use the sun to recharge them if power is out. This solar-powered waterproof battery bank may be helpful to recharge your devices.

Car battery jump starter devices now include USB ports to charge phones, tablets, and computers. The Stanley J5C09 Portable Power Station Jump Starter is an option that might come in handy.

Accessing Social Media Sites During Disaster

Ideally, you always have an Internet connection. Unfortunately, that is not the reality in during of after a disaster.

In a disaster, if you do not have power and/or access to the Internet, there are places where you may be able to get that access to use social media. Here are some suggestions:

  • Vehicle
  • Coffee shop
  • Hotel lobby
  • Public library
  • Church
  • Work
  • Gyms
  • Stores and shopping centers
  • Community centers
  • Government buildings

Social Media Disaster Scam Warning

The following warning from a Joplin tornado survivor applies to the aftermath of all disasters.

“After recently going through ths, please be careful where you donate money. Unfortunately, there are many who are not honest and will take advantage of this tragedy.“

WARNING: Grifters, criminals, and quick-buck artists know that social media donation solicitations are unregulated. Before donating, be certain that any person or organization that is raising money after any disaster is legitimate.

In contrast, multiple legitimate organizations will solicit over social media to raise relief funds and to organize volunteers. Here is one such example from Joplin.

“You can sign up as a volunteer on www.211missouri.org (United Way).”

Avoid the grifters and support the honest recovery caregivers on social media.

Conclusion

Social media has made our world easier but has its own set of issues. For example, in any disaster, rumors run rampant. And yet, you have to act based on little or no facts, only the rumors.

To help prepare for the disruptions disasters cause, take care to have your social media platforms, apps, and devices in place, up-to-date (latest patches, software, operating system), tested and ready to go. The above suggestions are a good place to start.

Social media awareness may save your dignity, your life, your possessions and your loved ones during and after a disaster. Start taking important steps now to make that possible.

Bruce Curley

Bruce Curley is the Vice President of The American Civil Defense Association (TACDA). He is an active Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Member and is certified in National Incident Management Systems (NIMS). He authored the Emergency Response Plan for his hometown in Mt. Airy, Maryland. Bruce blogs at https://poetslife.blogspot.com/.