Tweeting for Help: Red Cross Explores Social Media

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate addresses attendees at the American Red Cross "Emergency Data Social Summit." Twitter enables you to know what Ashton Kutcher is thinking and where your friend is eating lunch, but could it also save your life? The nation’s largest relief organization, the American Red Cross, believes so, and is taking steps to help.

To capitalize on the potential social media provides to help during disasters, the Red Cross last week brought together more than 150 leaders in the government, social media, emergency response and non-profit sectors for the agency’s first ever “Emergency Social Data Summit.”

As we reporter earlier, a recent survey from the Red Cross found that one in five Americans say they would turn to digital means such as email, websites or Twitter for help if they were not able to reach 9-1-1. 44 percent of the more than 1,500 people surveyed also said they would use their social networks to reach authorities if they knew someone else needed help, with 35 percent saying they would post for help on Facebook and 28 percent reporting they would send a direct Twitter message to responders.

Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern said the use of social media during and after the massive earthquake that hit Haiti in January was the most prominent sign yet that new technology has prompted a major shift in disaster response.

Facebook got over 1,500 status updates per minute after the quake, and “Haiti” quickly became the top trending topic on Twitter. The Red Cross even received tweets from people trapped under buildings.

But the use of social media in that disaster, experts said, also exposed how behind the emergency services sector was in harnessing the technology’s power as there was no coordinated response for dealing with the Tweets or enough staff or foresight to sift through the mass of information streaming online.

The Red Cross Summit provided industry leaders with a forum to discuss better ways to handle the flow of information in future disasters. Attendees pointed to news tools, such as a hashtag-based syntax, that would make it easier to read tweets from disaster-hit areas, and volunteer networks, such as CrisisCommons, as positive steps towards ensuring a quicker response.

A quick response is crucial, as the Red Cross survey also found that 69 percent of respondents expect emergency responders to be monitoring social media sites in order to quickly send help, and 74 percent expecting help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post.

Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), stressed to attendees that the ultimate goal must be to use social media to, “empower the public to be part of the response, not as victims to be taken care of.”

President Barack Obama set an example of this goal in January following the Haiti quake when he took to the Red Cross Haiti relief Twitter page to post his first ever Tweet, asking people to help Haiti.