A few weeks ago I wrote on the coming of age of the “Digital Public Information Officer (PIO)” and how social media, digital volunteers, and organization is key. (Find the original posting here: Considerations for the Digital Public Information Officer) This sparked a lot of great conversation across the Social Media in Emergency Management (SMEM) community and a recent SMEMChat (#smemchat) widened the conversation into topic areas of addressing where existing volunteers may be already working that may be well suited for cross training in the use of social media. To this end an interesting conversation blossomed on bringing into the fray a group of technologically savvy people that most emergency managers have at their disposal now: Amateur Radio operators.
Amateur Radio, also more commonly referred to as “Ham Radio”, has been around for quite some time and has often been one of the only means of communications after mass disasters around the world. (i.e., Hurricane Katrina, 2003 Northeastern US Black Out, 2004 Tsunami, and many others.) This community of tightly knit hobbyist have an urge to learn, create, and/or modify/manipulate just about anything electronic and/or can be used to communicate with the outside world. Tapping into this innovative spirit only lends itself in making emergency communications easier when things get tough. However, this should not be something new to of those who have been working with Amateur Radio operators for disaster response efforts in the past. Though, others may need to take a second look at this growing resource.
So, what makes Amateur Radio operators such a great resource? Simple: Have tech, innovative spirit, and will travel. This is a group of highly dedicated, tech minded, problem solvers that are up to just about any challenge if it can be fixed with technology. (..or duct tape, WD40, and a hammer..) It only makes sense that those who find their hobby based in finding new and innovative ways to communicate may in fact be the best place to find assistance in engaging the public during a disaster. Though its not just the innovative spirit that makes Hams a great resource, part of what separates Amateur Radio hobbyists from the pack is the fact that there are licensing requirements that require base knowledge in simple electronics, radio wave propagation, and the regulations that bind license holders. (This is no backseat quarterback hobby people.) However, the buck doesn’t stop there. This group of highly skilled volunteers are also well versed in emergency management, communications platforms, and some even already belong to organizations that provide this support today. (Possibly within your organization already.) Anything from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS), SKYWARN, State and Local Emergency Management Support (Check out the State of Oregon and their integration), the Red Cross, and Amateur Radio Clubs themselves have looped in Ham operators for years to help provide communications during disasters. Even more important is that a lot of these organizations are in the Social Media space already and expanding every day. Bottom line, these individuals are near by and have been part of the system for some time and may be under utilized.
Taking this resource and applying it to the Social Media engagement side of the house may be just what the doctor ordered. Amateur Radio operators almost always want to learn something new. This want to always be absorbing new technology and how it works is one of the most promising aspects about adding Social Media to their skill set. What better to reinforce your Emergency Operations Center (EOC) communications cell than to take your trained volunteers and add another communication method to their ever growing tool box of options in helping get the word out? These individuals already are plugged into most organization’s situational awareness, command and control, and communications groups helping pass information, why not help empower these volunteers to pass important information back to the public as well?
Now granted this process may not come over night, but here are a few steps that can help bring the two together:
1.) Ask! If an organization doesn’t engage the available volunteers from local RACES, ARES, MARS, SKYWARN and other Ham Radio volunteers if there is any interest in learning more about applying Social Media to the same problems these groups handle every day, one may never know the interest level. So, get in there and engage.
2.) Educate! As stated previously, Hams are typically technologically savvy and love playing with just about any type of technology, though it is possible to run into situations where this is new ground for some of these individuals. Help bring these volunteers up to speed on what is going on and how the organization envisions using Social Media to better help communicate with the public in an emergency. It is highly likely that additional ideas will be produced from this group as they come up to speed.
3.) Train, Exercise, and Repeat! Once there is engagement with interested Hams and they are up to speed, now is the time to get a solid training regiment in place. Though some Amateur Radio operators have had training via organizations like RACES, ARES, MARS, and SKYWARN this is a great time to bring them up to speed on the organizational operating procedures and emergency management in general. Set up minimum training requirements: (i.e., FEMA EMI IS-100, FEMA EMI IS-200, FEMA EMI IS-700, FEMA EMI IS-704, ARRL EC-016, and ARRL EC-001) Once trained, practice and do it again until comfortable.
4.) Communicate! Once things are underway and there is an established process in place that the organization and the volunteers are comfortable with start telling people about it. People can’t volunteer for something they don’t know about. Amateur Radio is still growing strong as a hobby and more and more people want to know how to become more involved in helping out during disasters.
In the end, this is a great chance to bring together a group of volunteers that are already available within most EOCs to help engage the public with information, faster. Take the time to talk to these individuals, find common ground, locate the interest, make a plan of action, and execute.
Opportunity is knocking, is your organization ready to step up to the challenge?
The good folks at CrisisCommons and the entire #SMEM community constantly are discussion the values and challenges surrounding the use of social media by organizations to pass important emergency related information during a disaster. For this discussion, I will be focusing on the role of social media from the context of keeping people informed. Specifically, I was intrigued to write on this topic after reading a recent piece by Patrice Coultier entitled, “Of Emergency Warnings and Being Convincing.” Patrice, as usual, has provided an interesting (..and international) look at the way emergency management organizations use tone and different styles of approach in delivering important emergency information to citizens. This ultimately got me to thinking about the role of the Public Information Officer (PIO) and the integration of technology tools in assisting in providing information to the masses.
With social media now a more common piece of every day information flow around the globe and very much so here in the United States, I am left to consider its impact on the PIO’s day-to-day job. As many are already aware, the PIO’s primary job is to act as the “official voice” of an organization and in this case we’ll assume the PIO to be a part of a governmental function. Therefore, during an emergency this person is the individual, or team of individuals, who should be providing the public with information on an emergency as the official source. (This is where Patrice’s article on approach, tone, and the like comes to play.) However, I feel that more and more in today’s technology laden landscape the PIO in many jurisdictions have either entirely ignored the social media space, misused it, or are just starting to grasp it. To this end, I think there are some key items that should be considered:
- Be the Official Source: This seems far to logical to be stated, but I feel a lot of jurisdictions have let this basic concept of PIO work go by the way side, simply because a new technology is at play. Think of it this way: The PIO’s job has not changed in the new social media landscape, it has simply been expanded. PIOs should not be doing anything more, less, or different than before. Social media is simply another tool in the tool box of a communications professional (the PIO) to use and reach his/her target audience. To this end, the PIO should work in social media, as appropriate, to their communciations plan and work with social media outlets to obtain “verified” and/or “validated” accounts where possible. This allows the PIO’s presence on the internet to be a confirmed, trusted, and official source for information.
- Open the Two-Way Street: For the longest time the job of a PIO was to push information. With today’s technology PIOs can act as a two-way conduit for information to the public and information received by the public. Opening up this two-way dialog during an emergency allows PIOs to get the important, validated information out, but also take in new information from the public. This allows response organizations to better plan for operations, but also allows the PIO and the emergency management organization to validate issues and reissue confirmed statements to the public writ large. Remember, this is a huge issue with social media: After a disaster many people will begin self-reporting information creating a cross section of accurate, embellished and completely false information that many people will take as accurate unless someone steps in as the official source and validation point for information. This is a function best owned by the PIO shop and is honestly the best place for growth right now in the SMEM world in my opinion.
- Be Honest: One item that used to be difficult for some PIO organizations was the ability to be 100% open and transparent during events. This is an older model of only releasing 100% confirmed information while remaining silent on unresolved/unconfirmed issues. To this end, social media has made it more possible for PIOs to obtain more information faster and get it back out faster and more widespread. (Just as mentioned above, the two-lane street is open for business and can some times be a super highway.) One of the greatest impacts of using social media is the ability to interact and be part of the situation. Often times PIOs are seen as the one on TV that just pushes random information while being separated from the event. Now, PIOs can be in the mix and engaging their public directly and one of the best ways to obtain trust and authority is to be honest in your transactions. I think you will find that many people will provide more information and be more willing to follow instructions and guidance if they feel like they are directly involved.
- Recruit, Standardize, and Innovate: Let’s face it, PIOs have it pretty rough some times and much like their host organizations they are generally drastically understaffed when things start happening. This is not lost on many of us, in fact there are many volunteer organizations out there that exist purely to fill the void during disasters, however it’s time we start looking at the problem in front of us and begin working on filling the gaps. Social media use in disasters have resulted in a flood of information at the one time that many shops down’t have the personnel to sort through the noise and find the information that is most important. To resolve this I am becoming a heavy supporter in the age of the “digital first responder.” A phrase, that the Red Cross seems to get most credit for coining, that basically means volunteers that will help become the PIO’s filter during an emergency. This cadre of volunteers can be brought together whether it be via existing Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers, Red Cross volunteers, or via standing up a specific volunteer group for this function. Train these individuals in the processes of you organization, basic emergency management, and put them to work in front of a computer helping to organize information as it comes in. This frees up the PIO, but also ensures that the public is heard and answers are provided. (They help the two-way street from becoming one-way and a potential hazard to your communications.) This is the greatest area organizations can innovate and help standardize their social media engagement during emergencies.