Social media changes emergency operations, adds immediacy (with list)

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 10, 2014 

South Carolina Emergency Management Division employees, including Michael Gilpatric, seated, Mike Elieff, left, Derrec Becker, and Tim McCord, work at computers in the Emergency Operation Center in Pine Ridge.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

The explosion of social media has fundamentally changed the way emergency management officials approach their jobs.

No longer do they have to hold news conferences and wait for the traditional media to spread their message. They send information out immediately on Twitter and Facebook and post it on their own websites.

Of course, they still ask the media for help in explaining situations and reaching the less plugged-in residents. And one of the best places to cut through all of the social media chatter and find information compiled in an easy-to-understand format is at http://www.thestate.com.

But the big difference for emergency officials is they no longer wait to put out an update every four hours like they once did.

“For us from a crisis communications and an emergency alert standpoint, it’s been the biggest game changer since the telephone, even more so than the Internet,” Derrec Becker, spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division, said of social media. “We’re communicating directly not only with the media … but also with citizens at home.

“When you talk about a snow storm or a severe thunderstorm, a lot of people are scared. They have a lot of questions, and they’re at home and they can’t leave. So what do you do? You go to Facebook, you go to Twitter, you look at the media.”

While emergency managers can shoot out one message on various social media platforms, they don’t have the staff to respond to every Tweet or Facebook message. But they do have somebody reading them to get a better picture of the situation outside the four walls of their offices.

Websites tend to be more important than social media for other state agencies that deal with weather emergencies — especially the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety. The leaders of those agencies often get information about traffic accidents and road conditions as quickly from their own staff on the roads as from public Tweets.

As for getting the word out about accidents and tie-ups, the details don’t always fit in 140-character tweets, so their social media messages often include links to their websites for the full details of traffic accidents DPS is working or to webcams showing major road conditions. Hits on the DOT website went up five-fold during the most recent storm in late January, the agency said.

For those of you seeking to keep up with the progress of, and damage caused by, the storm, here are some of the top social media connections and websites.

•  @SCEMD on Twitter or South Carolina Emergency Management Division on Facebook: The state emergency management division Twitter handle provides updates on weather, road conditions and what emergency personnel are doing. Because representatives from all state agencies dealing with the storm will be gathered at the EMD’s Emergency Operations Center, they end up being the best central clearinghouse of information. For this storm, they have asked agencies to use #SEstorm on all storm-related Tweets. Search for that hashtag to get a good idea what’s going on.

•  @NWSColumbia on Twitter or US National Weather Service Columbia South Carolina on Facebook: The weather service has embraced the two-way communication of social media in the past year, especially during severe weather. The entries from the meteorologists help explain what’s going on as a storm arrives, and they get tons of feedback from the public about local conditions, especially on their Facebook site. For the latest local hourly forecast for the next four days, go to http://www.erh.noaa.gov/cae/ and click on the “Hourly Weather Graph” in the middle of the page. Then click as close as you can to where you are on the map.

•  mPing app: This is a crowd-sourcing app that can be downloaded to cell phones or computers. It’s interesting to watch as the general public posts when various types of precipitation hit where they are. One overly hopeful snow-lover in the Midlands reported snow about eight hours before anyone else in the area during the most recent storm in late January. It probably was sleet, but it might have been an early snowflake. To download the app, go to http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/projects/ping/

•  @SCDPS_PIO on Twitter or South Carolina Department of Public Safety on Facebook: You can get lists of accidents on the highways here, giving you an idea of how bad the conditions might be. But usually, it’s easier to go to their website at http://www.scdps.gov/schp/schpwebcad/Default.aspx for real time accident information.

•  S.C. Department of Transportation website: It’s probably best to check those conditions on the department website at www.dot.state.sc.us. Click on “webcams” on the left or “SC Road Conditions” in the list at the bottom of the page.

•  SCE&G website and text: Calling the power company used to be the only option for letting it know power was out at your home or business. Now you can text the power company at 467234 (that spells “gosceg”). To be prepared, go ahead and register your phone and account number by texting “reg” “youraccountnumber” “home” without the quote marks but with the spaces. Then when the power goes out, you can just text the word “Out” to that same number. Also, if you’re curious, you also can go to sceg.com and click on “storm center” and then “outage map” to see where the power outages are. On Twitter, the utility’s handle is @scegnews

•  Localities: Some local governments do a particularly good job of getting out information on Twitter, including @CityofColumbia, @RichlandSC, @CityofCayce, @WestColumbiaSC and @TownLexingtonSC.

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