Mark Economou from Boca Raton Police Department brought this up
last month, but the topic came up here recently as well. To echo Mark's message: make sure social networking is part of any emergency or crisis communications plan.
Mark says, fortunately, the folks in Boca haven't had to use social networking in a crisis. However, last summer here in Boise, we did! We had a major fire burning in the foothills in Eagle, a suburban community just northwest of Boise. Eagle's fire chief asked the Boise fire chief to handle PIO responsibilities, which meant I went to work - I work as PIO for both Boise PD and Boise Fire.
As wildfires sometimes do, this one caught just the wrong wind at the right time and exploded. For five hours on a hot August afternoon, the fire raced through the Eagle foothills threatening million-dollar mansions, older ranch homes, and livestock.
I directed media to be sure they were following @BoisePD on Twitter and used our Twitter
accounts to get out updates on the fire's progress, which included evacuations. Dozens of citizens retweeted our info. While getting out Twitter and Facebook updates on where the fire was, I was also able to reassure citizens as to where the danger was NOT. At one point, firefighters reported news crews were in a dangerous area. Again, I used Twitter to alert media to get their crews out of harms way.
It didn't matter that the info was coming from @BoisePD and not a fire department account. The information was immediate and accurate. I felt the ability to use the @BoisePD account also showed the mutual aide we're all willing to provide to our partner emergency response agencies.
By evening, the fire had calmed and four homes were lost. However, no one was hurt.
We recently held our annual multi-agency wildfire training and planning session with about a dozen local, state and federal fire and law enforcement agencies. Where some folks last year had no idea about how Twitter worked, this year, using Twitter to relay updated info to citizens and the media was repeated again and again as an important part of the plan.
We all just hope we don't have to use it.