Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Social Media Incident Commander's Perspective

Here is another guest post from my favorite Fire Chief, Chief Bill Boyd of the City of Bellingham Fire Department. Here he shares his direct experience of how social media plays out in a fire event--one that got him on TV news and the Wall Street Journal. I can tell you from my vantage point, if you are not following the lead of this "with it" fire chief, you are going to get left in the dust:

Recently, my pager awakened me from a deep sleep at 3 A.M., notifying me and my command staff of a large fire downtown. I quickly dressed while listening to the dispatcher’s radio transmissions describing three storefronts were on fire. “Here we go” I thought as I drove to the scene. From a couple of miles away I could see the large thermal column and glow in the sky. I listened to the first in size up, battalion chief strategy and tactical communications. All the while, I envisioned what was occurring and what to expect when I arrived. I knew what to expect, large fire, crews “taxed to the max” and large hose streams in use. On arrival I was confronted with two large vacant commercial buildings with heavy fire showing (pretty spectacular if I might say!). The strategy, as expected, was defensive.

I parked my vehicle and suited up. While doing so I was struck by the large group of onlookers all appearing to be using their cell phones to take pictures, shoot video, text and simply do it the old fashioned way-talk. . It was obvious that even as I readied myself for battle these novice reporters were already reporting on the battle and predicting the future. “It’s going to burn up half of downtown”, “They won’t be able to stop this”, “The building exploded man!” (A true statement; a smoke explosion blew out the windows and lifted the roof just after the first in engine arrived), “I’m sending you pictures as soon as I hang up”, are just some of the comments I heard in my first 30 seconds on scene.
Amateur reporters were sending real time information and opinion about our incident. I had just witnessed a micro view of social media reporting in all its glory.

There was no way we were going to get ahead of the “lookyloos” texting about this event. However, outside of the ongoing superficial accounts of the fire I knew we needed to quickly provide information the amateur reporters did not know; the buildings were vacant, firefighter safety was the number one priority, several fire districts responded to provide fire/EMS protection to the city and crews would likely be extinguishing hot spots throughout the day.

None of this inside information was available to the crowd. However, in my brief time overhearing what was being said, I began thinking about appropriate messaging to validate what people saw and also dispel l inaccurate speculation. Once we confirmed the fire was contained to the buildings of origin, an assistant chief issued a quick media release from the field via PIER, our web-based emergency media messaging tool .

Shortly thereafter, local news reporters arrived and we provided as much information as we could, realizing that given the time of day, they would not be reporting this news for at least a couple of hours.

At the same time, I used my Blackberry to log into my personal Twitter account where I found a direct message from a Seattle T.V. station asking for a phone call to talk about the fire. I immediately returned the call and within minutes was speaking live to the anchors of an early morning news program. This conversation was recorded and repeated an hour later. Ironically, during subsequent replays of my interview they showed my Twitter profile picture as a background! (I was really glad it was a good picture of me in a tie at a friend’s wedding).

Subsequent monitoring of newspaper blogs, Twitter feeds, and other media streams revealed a speculative and rampantly spreading rumor accusing the building owners of setting the fire to collect insurance money and make the property more attractive to potential buyers. A subsequent media release, based on witness interviews, facts and physical evidence addressed these rumors.

By 8 A.M. that morning, pictures of the fire and commentary were already posted on web sites across the country, and the Wall Street Journal had a color picture and caption in the news section the following day.

The lessons learned from this incident are not just related to fire ground strategy or tactics. Equally as important, we noted how fast information is spread in the virtual world and the need to monitor and push out accurate and frequent information as quickly as possible. A well respected emergency response and GIS professional recently commented on one of my blog postings; “Raw information seems to rise, like smoke, from any event. If you’re not providing solid information about a situation, digital smoke will fill any space that you don’t — and flash over.” Well stated.

For now, I’d be happy if we do not make the Wall Street Journal again.

Some observations from a newbie social media IC;
There is a direct correlation between the visibility of the emergency and the number of cell phones/ cameras in use.
Social media is not a “kid thing”. It is THE THING. Minimize the medium and you may be minimized.
My kids are horrified I have a Facebook account. Using it to provide emergency information does not make them feel any better.
Traditional media will never be as fast as a witness with a 3G cell phone camera and a good signal.
Think “140 or less” and call it “texting”, not “typing”.
It is hard to give context in 140 characters. Chose your words and phrases carefully. Get it right the first time.
Learn what “hash tag” and “retweet” means.
If you don’t have a social media presence before the “big one”, your likelihood of social media success in emergency social media communications is just about zero.
Nothing beats a QWERTY keypad on a cell phone.
It is tempting to hire teenagers with texting configured cell phones. No one does it faster or more frequently.
Be prepared for your message to go viral in a heartbeat. This means you need to be ready to keep the messages flowing and point readers somewhere to get detailed information.
It is OK to say “we have no further info right now.”
It is Ok to say “we will post more info as we get it.”
It is not OK to posting nothing for a long time (a long time in the social media world is minutes-not hours)
A viral message is just one “tweet” away.
If you don’t get it right, correct it as soon as you can! Don’t linger, or the error will.
Notice and correct rumors ASAP, especially if they are trending.
Use a Twitter monitoring site (I use TweetDeck) to filter tweets and identify trending messages.
Pictures often convey much more than words.
Posting pictures of victims or patients is not cool and may violate privacy laws. Be careful!
You can convey compassion and sound human in less than 140 characters. “We are concerned” packs a punch.
Your audience can be worldwide in less than 30 minutes.

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