Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Communications and Social Media in Emergency Management

on September 6, 2021
FEMA communications station

At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.  Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower.  At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 nose-dived into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia.  All three airlines had been hijacked by members of the radical Islamic terrorist organization, Al Qaeda (Haddow, 2017; 911 Memorial, 2018).

Communication breakdowns were widespread during the emergency response to the attacks on the World Trade Center.  911 operators did not know what was actually happening.  Evacuation orders were confused and misleading.  Telephone lines were jammed with callers, and cell towers were down.  Signals to firefighter radios failed.    Public address and intercom systems inside the World Trade Center went out (CBS News, 2004; Sharp, 2011).

Confusion and lack of situational awareness led to higher casualties, especially among first responders.  People in the South Tower were told not to evacuate and to wait for instructions and aid from emergency personnel.  Others evacuated up, toward the roof, not knowing that they needed a key to get outside to the roof (CBS News, 2004).

Fire and police personnel were using different radio channels and could not communicate with one another (CBS News, 2004; Sharp, 2011).  A repeater system installed in the World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing was not completely functional (Sharp, 2011).

By the time the Boston Marathon bombings occurred on April 15, 2013, emergency managers had learned the importance of communications during disaster events.  For the first time, social media played a critical role in communicating information about the bombings and capturing the culprits (Haddow, 2017).

The Boston Police Department was a leader in using social media to communicate with the public.  Photos, videos, and information were shared through Twitter, Facebook, and websites.  Inaccurate information was quickly corrected.  When the Tsarnaev brothers were finally caught, Boston Police Department tweeted a resounding “CAPTURED!!!” (Haddow, p. 185, 2017).

“Information sharing is the basis of effective disaster communications” (Haddow, p. 191, 2017). The public needs to know what is happening and where to get help.  TV, radio, and newspapers have been the traditional media used for information.  But the use of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter has changed all that.

“Social media is imperative to emergency management because the public uses these communication tools regularly” (Haddow, p. 171, 2017).  Not only can members of the public receive accurate and timely information from reliable sources, but they can help response efforts by submitting videos, photos, digital maps, and other information.

The use of social media allows friends and family to communicate with one another.  They can view press conferences by local and national leaders.  Information about shelters and registering for aid is readily available.  People can contribute donations through websites (Haddow, 2017).

On the downside, social media has been responsible for spreading hysteria and misinformation across the Internet.  “Misleading, faulty, or malicious information or pictures” (Haddow, p. 161, 2017) can hamper response and relief efforts.  Dishonest people have been known to solicit donations for relief aid that never reached the intended source.  When terrorism is involved, calls for retaliation are often posted.

Emergency managers have found that interacting with the public through two-way communication is an effective tool during disaster events.  When emergency managers and local leaders commit themselves to providing timely and accurate information to the public, the whole community benefits.  Communication specialists are now an important part of every Office of Emergency Management.  They work with the local media to get disaster and relief information out quickly and effectively.  Understanding what is actually going on helps members of the public to make well-informed decisions about evacuation, relief aid, and recovery (Haddow, 2017).

“The mission of an effective disaster communications strategy is to provide timely and accurate information to the public in all four phases of emergency management” (Haddow, p.162, 2017).  Social media can provide information about disaster preparedness and limiting damages resulting from disasters.   Local emergency responders can provide warnings of an impending event, information about evacuation routes, and up-to-date details about an ongoing event.  After the event, social media and websites can help people register for and receive disaster aid.  The FEMA website offers complete information about its mission and what services are available to disaster victims (Haddow, 2017).

Decades of experience have taught emergency managers the value of effective communication.  Improved communication technology and social media contribute enormously to that goal.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

October 10, 2019

Copyright 2019-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

References

911 Memorial. (2018). 9/11 Memorial Timeline. Retrieved from

       http://www.timeline.911Memorial.org/#FrontPage.

Associated Press. (2004, May). Communication breakdown on 9/11. CBS News. Retrieved from

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/communication-breakdown-on-9-11.

Haddow, G.D., Bullock, J.A., & Coppola, D.P. (2017). Introduction to emergency management.

       (6th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Elsevier.

Sharp, K. (2011, September). Interoperability & other lessons from 9/11. Public Safety

       Communications. Retrieved from


7 responses to “Communications and Social Media in Emergency Management

  1. Gersom Clark says:

    Thank you for this valuable information, Dawn! Indeed, the public should know how FEMA and its counterparts in other countries, are working/operating. True, emergency communications is crucial to the success of an ongoing emergency operations and a Public Information Officer is included in the ICS structure for that purpose. This is nostalgic; thank you! Blessings to you and your family! Good morning from the Philippines!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I was not aware that there were so many issues with communication during the 9/11 attacks.
    On any level of human interaction, and not only, clear and correct communication is crucial, indeed.
    Such a clear and comprehensive article. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Your piece was concise, and on point…
    🇯🇲🏖️

    Liked by 2 people

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