A powerful winter storm that stranded thousands of motorists in the Atlanta area on Tuesday  January 28, 2014 prompted these instructions:

“If you are stranded and cannot get through to 911, please send the Atlanta Police Department a message through Facebook or Twitter”.

Atlanta snow debacle

photo credit:

Scientific American published an analysis of how social media is changing disaster response. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, Facebook was a new concept. During and after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, FEMA reported that 20 million Sandy- related Twitter posts were sent by users, despite the loss of cell phone service. (Note: during a severe hurricane, cell towers are often the first thing to go).

During the Boston Marathon Bombing, according to the Pew Research Center, one quarter of Americans looked to social networking sites for information.

Social media is increasingly becoming a valuable emergency management tool.

It is fast, it is portable (people have cell phones or other mobile devices on them), it keeps a record, it allows better use of manpower in crisis situations, it preserves 911 operators for other life emergencies other than “I’m stuck on the highway.”

Social media allows the rapid dissemination of information. It can let people know that their loved ones are safe. It can serve as a wide information- gathering tool for emergency responders as people post information, pictures and video about what is happening throughout the affected region. In an emergency, this information, called “situational awareness” is critical in distributing help and resources.

There are, of course downsides, too. Some information may not be accurate, and false information can “go viral”. There are also scammers, in any disaster, there are those who will enrich themselves on other’s misfortune.

Social media as an emergency response tool is evolving and what it evolves into and how important it will become is not yet known.

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