Social Media in the Wake of Disaster

By Jennifer Miller

In the aftermath of any disaster we are reminded of the fact that getting information to those affected and coordinating first responders is key. Where do people turn for that information? In the case of the recent Philadelphia Amtrak incident, city officials directed people to tune into their Twitter account for up to the second reports and updates.

Although emergency management protocol is not a new topic, Twitter, as a real time news source for emergency situations, is. Twitter, Facebook, and the like, are part of Social Media Emergency Management (SMEM) a topic that Public Service Officer, Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department knows quite a bit about.

Los Angeles, America’s second largest city, has been called “The Nation’s Disaster Theme Park”. It has 4 million people, 770 high rises, 11 major freeways, oil refineries, international harbors, 470 square miles of residential and brush areas, and thousands of emergencies a year. Responding to more than 1,100 of these emergencies is Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department (LAFD), who utilize Social Media Emergency Management practices every day.

LAFD has two Twitter accounts they use for SMEM, created by Officer Scott’s colleague and mentor, Brian Humphrey. @LAFD began in 2007 to host breaking news and has over 50,000 followers, while @LAFDTalk began in 2009 with a more conversational tone to host pictures, videos and helpful tips and has over 22,000 followers. In addition to Twitter, LAFD is also active on Facebook, Instagram and Flick*r. The timeliness and success of their social media efforts can be attributed to the three public service officers that work platoon duty throughout the year.


For LAFD Social Media has grown to have a place in emergency management, but that was not always the case. There was a time when many key individuals didn’t understand how Facebook or Twitter would play a role in emergency management. Questions around who views the information and how people find the information arose. But pressures from the public, who demanded more convenient and real time ways to ingest information, drove the department forward. As Officer Scott points out, “LAFD views it as a privilege to inform the public of the jobs their firefighters do everyday. We need to reach the public and communicate with them in the ways they want. These ways change with time and we need new tools to keep up.”

To LAFD, it was obvious the old ways of informing the public via TV and radio were not sufficing. So they started simple, with the goal of getting information out on their social media channels and keeping it current.

As their social media channels increased in popularity, the foreign nature of communicating via social media gave way to a familiarity that solidified Twitter and Facebook as emergency management tools.

LAFD, along with FEMA, agree that increasingly the public is turning to social media to obtain up to date information during emergencies and to share data about the disaster. It not only allows for another channel of broadcasting messages to the public, but also allows for two way communication between emergency managers and major stakeholder groups.

When asked if social media is here to stay, Officer Scott quotes a written statement by Craig Fugate, Administrator of FEMA, “Social media is imperative to emergency management because the public uses these communication tools regularly. We must adapt to the way the public communicates by leveraging the tools that people use on a daily basis. We must use social media tools to more fully engagement public as a critical partner in our efforts.”


With Social Media firmly established within LAFD’s set of emergency management tools, SMEM training has become part of the curriculum. In this training, Officer Scott says they emphasize a quote make by Jane Holl Lute, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, in which she calls information in an emergency situation a commodity as important as food, water and shelter.

Knowing your market is also key to successful social media emergency management. For example, the LA market is technology-driven and fast paced. The public service officers recognized people didn’t engage with text…not even 140 characters. They engaged with visual mediums, like pictures and particularly short videos. The officers knew this based on engagement rates.

Because LAFD has two Twitter accounts, keeping the tone of each account consistent is paramount for the experience of the viewer. For example @LAFD has a specific format in how they disseminate information. No video is shared on this account, just facts that impact the first responders and public. @LAFDTalk has a conversational tone where they post pictures, video clips of the department from TV, tips, and respond to questions.


Finding information to put on their social media channels is no problem for Officer Scott and crew. The biggest part is listening and then sharing.

Like most agencies, LAFD has tips they want to share, and social media is great for sharing those. Keeping these tips timely is key, so the viewer doesn’t get bored. For example, if there is a small earthquake LAFD takes the opportunity to remind their audience of earthquake safety tips. People listen because it is fresh on their mind. Another good source of content is TV. LAFD has a tool, called SnapStream, that records and monitors television channels 24/7 for key phrases or words said on air.

This tool emails them the clip in near real time and has streamlined how they are able to post video footage of their firefighter’s heroic efforts to social media. Video clips are an important aspect of social media, Officer Scott says, because “Informing the public of the great work firefighters do day in and day out helps LAFD gain the trust and support of our public.”


Social media as an emergency management tool is well established at LAFD and continues to grow. They have added Twitter accounts for their four Bureau Commanders to use in their geographic area @ LAFDwest, @LAFDsouth, @LAFDcentral, @LAFDvalley. They have also brought on a civilian to assist with social media strategies. Last month, they implemented UnifiedLA on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. UnifiedLA acts as a command center to inform the public and stakeholders about incidents involving multiple agencies or events that extend beyond one jurisdiction, like earthquakes, fires or marathons.

Because of the on demand nature of social media, SMEM is becoming increasingly important to disaster survivors and emergency managers. If your department has not begun enacting SMEM efforts, now is the time and Officer Scott has a few tips to help get you started:

  • Don’t be scared, just get your feet wet if you haven’t already.
  • Create an official account to begin with and start by sharing information that is pertinent to the department, such as the incident, station covering, community affected, size-up, dispatch channel or tactical channel, time of dispatch, etc. As your reach or viewership increases, evolve your content to include videos, maps, etc. (LAFD uses a different Twitter account for video content).
  • Inform your audience of emergencies, but don’t forget to also include posts about charity events, heroic efforts, safety tips, or other daily activities your firefighters do. This builds trust and support within the community you serve.
  • Practice makes perfect. The more you use social media, the more comfortable it will feel. So when disaster does strike you will know how to disseminate information to your audience and your audience will know where to turn for up-to-the-minute updates.

Jennifer Miller is a Marketing Specialist at SnapStream.

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