Facebook – your new emergency broadcast system?

When the hills of Southern California were burning last fall and residents fleeing the flames as communities were evacuated, Dominic Chan reached out to help – with Facebook.

A college student at the University of California at Berkeley, Chan was a safe distance away from the fires in the northern part of the State. His first instinct was to organize a group of friends to head south and help out, but a call to the Red Cross made him think twice.

Ryna Brideau-Thombs of TELUS explains how social networking was used during last Fall’s wildfires in California.

“They said the best way was to donate money through their Web site for relief efforts,” he says. “So I set up a Facebook group that posted stories, pictures and a link to donate money.”

After calling on a friend in Beverley Hills to help administer the group, the membership quickly shot up to nearly 500 people. Chan was just one of many California residents to turn to social networking sites during the disaster. That has emergency management specialists looking at how the Web can help them communicate and gather information quickly during a disaster.

“It’s been a big problem for the longest time because the means of communication weren’t always the most effective,” says Ryna Brideau-Thombs, an emergency management specialist at Edmonton-based TELUS Corp.

She presented at Tuesday’s World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto.

“Social networking sites allow people to pass on information very quickly,” she says. “Because we had a problem with getting information out there to a lot of people, these sites might be the answer.”

For the 15-year veteran of the emergency management sector in both the public and private space, it is all about building the “Common Operational Picture.” That means piecing together all relevant information about an ongoing disaster from multiple sources to get a grasp on how to coordinate rescue efforts.

The ability to put together a complete picture used to be limited to those who were technically savvy. But in the age of user-friendly technology, everyone has access to that information – made possible, in part, by Web 2.0 tools.

People looking for information about disasters share the same mentality as social network users, Brideau-Thombs says. That makes the two a natural match.

“It’s all about me,” she explains. “With disasters, it’s about how big it is, how close to me it is, and if it’s going to hurt anyone I know.”

The California wildfires showed that people go to the Internet first to look for information about a disaster in progress, the specialist says.

A Google Map shows where fires raged throughout Southern California last Fall.

The State government’s public relations office reacted quickly, keeping tabs on the situation by following conversations posted to social networking sites.

People using Twitter, Facebook and Flickr were communicating how close their homes were to the fire, whether they were being evacuated or not, and keeping updated on the safety of loved ones.

Chan’s Facebook group was created to raise donations to help fight the California fires, but quickly became a place to exchange information on the disaster. Group members reported seeing fires in the distance from their homes, Chan says.

“The information exchange was primarily through messages,” the student says. “The group [offered] information about the severity of the fires, and monetary donations to the Red Cross.”

Another critical piece of the puzzle during a disaster is a geographic map showing affected areas, Brideau-Thombs says. By using Google Maps, the public was quickly informed of the location and severity of multiple fires raging through the brush.

“The first public map of the fires was created within three hours of the start of the incident,” she says. “That’s a very short time to get the information to the public.”

Even non-technical people can create products that are rich in information with such technology, Brideau-Thombs adds. A study in Arizona showed that Google Earth could be used to give field workers a better understanding of a landscape they were rushing into, and aided in knowing what to find amidst an area carpeted with thick smoke.

Emergency managers should take a look at social networking as a way to keep better informed of a disaster situation, the specialist says. “Maybe they know something that we don’t.”

As for Chan’s Facebook group, its membership has dropped down to about 300 since the fires were quenched. But the messages of concern and photos of disaster remain as a reminder of those long days in October.

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