Red Cross: Facebook, Twitter becoming popular tools during disasters

By Jennifer Swift – 04/19/10 05:06 – THE HILL’S Technology Blog

While social media isn’t the only technological tool in a time of disaster, it’s become one of the more effective options, according to Joe Becker.

Becker, Senior Vice President of Disaster Services for the American Red Cross, says our use of social media has drastically changed the way in which we respond to and prepare for disasters.

In past decades, Becker said, the U.S. has responded to disasters with a “closed system,” including technologies used by first responders such as police, fire and medical teams.

But over the past year we’ve morphed into an “open system” when handling disasters, with tools like Facebook and Twitter serving as an open line of communication between families, neighbors, bystanders and volunteers. These Web-based technologies even inform people of how to help.

“It’s not about the proprietary systems, the big IT spends, the big IT investments that we tend to make in government and sometimes in the nonprofits—-it’s how we leverage the technology that people use in their daily lives to become part of the response.”

“The systems people use in their daily lives become the disaster systems, or become part of the disaster system technology solutions,” Becker said at a Brookings Institute panel on Monday.

According to Becker, the most effective way to help is to “communicate with people the way that they already do,” such as through text messaging or utilizing pre-existing social media sites instead of creating your own.

He said the American Red Cross has sent out 30-35 million text messages telling families where to find help or what they themselves can do to help. And although the American Red Cross has had a system in place to help families find others in times of a disaster, the connections they were able to make were “dwarfed” by those made on Facebook.

“These are the normal systems that people have, and I think a lot of the social media tie-ins are changing how we do business,” he said.

During disaster situations, social media allows organizations to tell people how to do so. As an example, Becker cited the Dupont Snowball Fight of 2010, which was mainly organized on Facebook.  In a similar way, Becker stressed that organizations could use tools like Facebook to organize ways for people to help out in a disaster.

While a “tweet” doesn’t replace a fire engine, it gives people an easy, effective and quick way to reach out for help or offer it.

Simply putting a Twitter or Facebook feed on a county’s web page, “it empowers people to become part of the disaster solution in ways that weren’t possible a very short time ago.”

But putting yourself out there on these social medias, you are also making a promise to your residents, says Becker.

“The good news is we can learn and be in dialogue with the effected people very quickly on an incredible scale,” he said. “The bad news is that creates incredible expectations of a finite police force, of a finite medical response, of a finite fire response in those earliest hours.”

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