Social Media to the Rescue: The New First Responders

Irma has brought with her a watershed moment: if it wasn’t already, social media is now the new mainstream.

     Taking a page from the playbook of the Tweeter in Chief, other government agencies are now embracing social media such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook, because of their broad appeal and ability to disseminate information much faster than the nation’s traditional emergency-response channels. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, according to The Wall Street Journal, first responders and government officials in Florida relied on social media to communicate and coordinate their efforts. The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posted frequent forecast updates on Twitter as the likely sites of landfall and potential risks of the storm shifted over the past few days, rather than just delivering advisories and forecasts to traditional news outlets. Florida Governor Rick Scott worked with Google to ensure that the State’s road closures were quickly reflected on Google Maps. And Florida’s tourism office sent targeted messages to 281,000 people on Facebook believed to be visiting the “Sunshine State,” advising them to take precautions.

Other web-based technology that’s coming to the rescue: Created just last month by a Houston-based data engineer, during Hurricane Harvey, CrowdSource Rescue is an online platform that connects people in need of rescuing with those who have resources like boats who are able to help. Last month, the program helped facilitate 7,000+ rescues in Houston and, as Irma made landfall on the Florida mainland on Sunday evening, was already helping Florida residents in distress. A previously-released app that shot up to #2 in the App Store during Hurricane Harvey is GasBuddy, which crowdsources prices at the pump, so evacuees can easily research where fuel was still available.

     Yet the social media tool that’s quickly becoming the go-to standard for tracking the impact of any emergency on family, friends, and neighbors is Facebook Safety Check, which lets users tell friends if they’re “safe” – and, if not, what they need. Even better, it lets “earth angels” respond to those in need. While not new (the service was introduced in 2014 and has been used for 600+ events since then, including during Hurricane Harvey, in Texas), its importance has hit new highs with the recent hurricanes. ABL Technology Member Chris Gundel’s company, NC4, which among its offerings supplies global crisis reports, is providing the crisis information used in the Safety Check tool, which now has its own dedicated button in the Facebook app’s navigation menu and on its website’s desktop.

     But beyond news, there’s the ability for two-way personal outreach. For example, as I write, Tropical Storm Irma is hitting Georgia, and there are 58 posts on Safety Check requesting help, and 362 offering it. For example, Lynne Johnson, of Lake Park, GA, posts: “[I] have an ear to listen a shoulder to cry on and a family that will welcome you if anyone is in need. I have hot showers, bottles of water and a hot meal … and baby girl clothes size 0-3 months.”

     Perhaps in their wakes, Harvey and Irma will leave not just better informed first responders, but enable more of us to reach out and be responders.

by Mimi Grant, President, Adaptive Business Leaders (ABL) Organization – Round Tables and Events for CEOs of Technology and Healthcare Companies