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Citizens ask the Town to use their SMEM brain

We were invited to present our #Get SMEMsmart project (Social Media Emergency Management) to the six Board Members of the town of Southold today ( Feb 15th). Without wishing to single anyone out, given the nature of the project, it’s worth noting that our Board does include Mattituck and Cutchogue Volunteer Fire Department 22 year active member, Chris Talbot. Here’s Chris’ pitch for election in the Fall of 2009, which was successful.

It was an informal work session, round table discussion, with pen and paper, no internet connection, except for a smart phone, which as a practical matter could not be used as a demo tool without amplification to a large screen.  Basic, simple, friendly, but difficult to engage participants of mixed knowledge and experience in matters of social media on the internet without access to a live stream. Lesson learned: ask for a hardline internet connection and take a laptop or notebook. Nevertheless, the project was well received, if not well understood, but well worth the effort.

SoutholdVOICE’s aim is to help official agencies serving the Township of Southold on the Eastern End of Long Island, New York, develop a social media emergency management policy appropriate for its’ size, which is Small Town America. This is a citizen led effort by an all volunteer, non-profit organization, comprised of many waterfront property owners, and perhaps including some of the most vulnerable in the community. When storms hit this part of the country, they usually come from the water which surrounds this narrow spit of land many call paradise, and damage is most severe at the waterfront property lines. Some of our members suffered devastating weather related property damage in recent storms, although thankfully no loss of life, it has been sufficient to compel us to seek out ways to to help preserve life and minimize property damage for the whole community in any way we can.

The Get SMEMsmart initiative proposes to connect volunteer private sector business and local citizens with emergency managers from all departments, and at all levels of government, to better communicate and support each other in the face of adverse weather conditions, amongst other possible manmade and natural disasters. From a citizen and private property owner perspective, self-preservation can and should be enhanced by taking advantage of social networking opportunities where necessary and desirable. This can be accomplished by self-help groups, and by using whatever support we can garner from government and the wider community throughout the world to get systems in place implemented in a timely manner, meaning before the next storm. Our mission is educational and our project is called Get SMEMsmart. Today, we made a good start.

The presentation was mainly a compilation of expert opinions drawn from the field of practicing EMs with whom we have connected using social media, and who meet the criteria of having embraced and in some cases, significantly conquered, the challenges of integrating social media with emergency management for the benefit of their own and other communities with whom they are willing to work. This narrow point where emergency management meets social media, as opposed to any other form of social media, is called SMEM. We make no apologies for liberally distributing printed copies of articles and selected blog extracts grabbed from the net, authored by some of the SMEM Mentors we have met online. These folks have impressed us with their credentials, that speak for themselves. We have simply taken advantage of social networking to interact with them across state lines, and in some cases, across country lines and continents, and by so doing, we not only become invested in their missions, we can benefit from their expertise to apply to our own.

In the process, we have wantonly plagiarized their words, borrowed and rephrased, all to give ourselves the best possible chance of a clear and meaningful exchange with our local government officials, for which we make no apology, but for which, we hope, a proper attribution has been given. If we have omitted a reference, an attribution, misinterpreted or misquoted in any way, please don’t hesitate to call us to account. You know who you are.

We need this external support because our comfort zones are not in the place where this project is pushing us. We need to make the leap to a new culture, and to make that leap proactively, prepared for a possible “Big One”, not to be left in the position of seeking help after the fact. THAT’s the project.


Our citizen proposal to the Township of Southold, comprising several towns, is for a public private partnership that involves government agencies, the police, fire service, local media, business, groups and individual citizens. Nobody is excluded. Everyone will benefit. Here’s a summary of what we said in so many ways:

1. Some of the benefits to the Town from getting involved in social media Although we’re a small community with limited resources, we think it’s important to look at the bigger picture and in particular, the impact social media is having worldwide,before we can assess the potential value  of harnessing resources for our own town. Benefits experienced by communities significantly larger than our own can and do apply to us, it’s simply a matter of scale.

The most important message we’re hearing is:

• Improve Situational Awareness: Citizens help identify potential hazards and disasters using social media. Added situational awareness can be demonstrated by numerous case examples in other communities and even our own. A typical quote from those already using social media might be along the lines of

We wouldn’t have known ‘xyz’ if we weren’t engaged in social media.

The following examples are intended to be talking points that show how powerful social media can be:


Haiti proved that cell phone coverage is more resilient than previously thought. People got text messages out from under the rubble.

Australia – floods of biblical proportions, immediately followed by two cyclones (hurricanes), one a direct category 5 hit. Lessons learned from the social media interaction between private citizens and authorities handling those disasters are already legendary. The loss of only 2 lives is being attributed by some to the use of social media in emergency management. Although the specifics cannot be fully revealed until after the debrief in due course, our sources in Brisbane are telling us that the successful preservation of life was due to citizens being properly prepared by social media messages, delivered frequently and often. If true, then the lesson learned is that the nature and extent of communication with your community in the hours immediately preceding an impending event is not to be underestimated and may be more critical than at any other time.

QPS Media (Queensland State Police), received 450 hits per second at the flood peak. All websites can be expected to have problems under that kind of server load. This is not the first time I’ve heard this and it’s beginning to look like normal and to be expected. At the same time, it’s well known since the days of yahoo Groups and Hurricane Ivan that social networks are better equipped to cope with peaks in website demand, which is one very good reason to use them. This was the decision made in Australia that proved so successful. Video briefing translation services were sourced from international volunteers, they had it all.

Brisbane City Council (their not insignificant contributions to the overall success less well known so far), gave us, amongst other things, the blueprint for mobilizing volunteers. They rallied 7,500 volunteers to fill and distribute 360,000 sand bags in a matter of only a few hours, when only 30,000 bags had been anticipated. They organized and bussed something like 22,500 volunteers to help with clean up, all properly documented, all properly ID’d.

<aside> By the way, if anyone is interested where that huge section of walkway that the tug manouvered under the bridge so skillfully finally ended up, part of it washed up HERE </aside>

Even the relatively small Australian township of Townsville (pop. 181,743), showed us how social media can pick up possible miscommunications between the various agencies. A whole town that may not have had access to fresh water and ice, but was well served as a result of a diligent Emergency Service person and the Police responding to a query from the public on a social network. Australia, we’re proud of you.

– Egypt: The US Government used Twitter to keep US citizens informed.

– US: California Police now use Twitter as a Public Info Tool.

More eyes on the street.

– Southold: Our Long Island newspaper, Newsday, first learned of the 3.8 earthquake off the Long Island Coast on Nov 30th 2010 via Twitter, by tweets from Freeport (Nassau County), and the Lanes in Cutchogue (North Fork). I personally received a thank you tweet from @newsday.

Bonus Video from SoutholdVOICE friend and Mentor Cheryl Bledsoe:

• Amplification of official messages: Ongoing contact can improve preparedness prior to and during a crisis. You own your message, and it’s more widely distributed. Viral messages are shared on Facebook pages, and retweeted again and again on Twitter.

• Mythbusters: Dispel rumors and inaccuracies. Example: “I heard xyz. Is it true?” This one is interesting, because despite fears and a system in place, there is no evidence that false tweets survive in the crowd. Apparently, the evidence points to citizens taking care of their own. Lesson learned (possibly): Leave this one to the crowd. Same with scams. The public isn’t fooled by them, they’re smart.

All roads lead to Facebook: There are over 500 emergency management group pages on Facebook already. An article that analyzed data related to the Queensland floods showed that Facebook was at the center of social media activity.

Saves time, money and helps rather than hinders operations (and some reputations!)

– Citizens want information faster than traditional sources can provide. Some have an intense appetite for immediate response from agencies, fed by social media.

– Citizens will start to expect/demand local government use social media (we are seeing some of that now)

– Volunteers need help to organize effectively

– Southold volunteer opportunities need to be expanded, if not, people will take matters into their own hands using social media to form self-help groups.

3. How do non-participants* in the Town and Community see these benefits for themselves?

Non-participants means people who do not use social media personally and may not even know what it looks like.

• Local Mentors: Meet with local mentors already using Facebook and Twitter, real people behind the electrons/avatars. Approximately 200 local businesses in our community are already connected on Facebook, more every day. Dozens already use Twitter. Talk to them.

National Mentors: SoutholdVOICE reached out to social network experts in the Emergency Management Community, who are extremely helpful. Several helped with the preparation of this presentation, either directly or indirectly. Any questions so far?

A non-exhaustive list of questions from the Town Board of the Town of Southold:

Q: Does everyone have to register with the Town’s twitter account to send messages to them using twitter?

A: No, everyone registers their own Twitter account.

Q: Can twitter go both ways? Can the town receive information via twitter?

A: Yes, it goes both ways.

Q: How do we find the information relevant to us?

A: There are ways to search for very specific information #fail #vagueanswer

Q. How do I limit the type of tweets I get?

A: By a presentation listener: Explanation of how “Follow” works – everyone follows the town, but the town only follows the emergency responders.

• Real-time Searches: To witness value, go to Google Real-time at http://www.google.com/realtime and search a current event to see what is happening now. You can also go to http://www.search.twitter.com and search for a current event using words that you think people will be searching for, which may reveal a hashtag live stream, e.g. #qldfloods #TCYasi, #snOMG . Your search must be for a current event, since you are searching a real time rolling stream, not an archive.

• Trendsmap: http://www.trendsmap.com shows a visualization of twitter trends on a map platform, again, a rolling live stream.

Email for skeptics: Not convinced yet? Ask us to forward tweets to you by email with early news before it breaks in mainstream media to demonstrate the value of social media.

• If you don’t listen, you can’t hear. Monitor social media for a while (2-3 months) to get comfortable with the medium.

• Learn how others are already using social media by reading case studies:

– This kind of information is being collected on www.sm4em.org, www.idisaster.wordpress.com, and http://hsemtech.blogspot.com/. Southold VOICE has recently been featured on all three, some people might think of us a case study.

40404: advanced level – twitter quick follow – get texts from critical sources

Facebook fan follow: advanced level – text (url vanity name) to 32665 to get notice of updates by text.

Next Up:
3. Partner & Advocates: Our Suggestions
4. Next Steps: How to connect the community with the Town at zero cost to the Town.

Thank you for your time.

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