How social media is reshaping disaster rescue

Published: 
January 2018

Facebook offers new ways to communicate in a crisis. Research reveals how to use it effectively.

As bushfires ravaged North Stradbroke Island over New Year 2014 and rescuers battled to save homes and lives, a small social media team kept the public updated.

Over the two-week period, the Redland City Council service became the ‘go-to source of information’, providing rolling coverage, answering questions about smoke hazards, power outages and evacuations while relaying back reports of spot fires to emergency service teams.

Nowadays in the event of any disaster – hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks or accidents – social media allows us to communicate directly with people at the scene, and offers live eye-witness reports which are far more compelling and up to date than any news channel.

Now research by UQ Business School has shown how emergency services and the public are using it in disasters and how it is reshaping rescue and recovery operations.

Dongming Xu and PhD student Fang Liu, examined three separate incidents – the ‘Straddie’ bushfires, the Houston floods in 2015, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 – and analysed the posts on the Facebook pages of the organisations co-ordinating relief efforts.

In each case they used Facebook to provide regular updates and respond to individual requests, with varying levels of engagement from the public. In the case of North Stradbroke Island, where almost 900 campers were evacuated and no lives were lost, the Facebook page attracted almost 900 posts.

In Houston – where four people died in flash floods in May 2015 and at least 2,500 vehicles were abandoned – the city’s emergency service used Facebook to issue storm warnings, advise those trapped in the flooded areas. Its page had fewer than 70 public posts.

The Boston Marathon elicited the biggest response. After two bombs exploded near the finishing line, killing three people and injuring around 264 others, over 16,000 messages were posted on the Marathon organisers’ Facebook page, many complaining that TV and traditional news sources were slow and unreliable.

The research found that social media can help rescuers respond more quickly and effectively. Dongming says: “In the past, communication has been limited in disasters. It has been difficult for officials to know the situation locally, and any public announcements have had to be issued through traditional media channels. Using social media, they can now communicate with the public directly and people can post real-time local updates, which allows officials to better understand what is happening and make more informed decisions about deploying aid.”

The researchers found that people also used social media to discuss their options and work out ways to cope themselves, rather than just relying on official rescue teams. In Houston for example, residents discussed evacuation routes on Facebook, while in the Straddie bushfires, some offered shelter to those affected.

However its role goes beyond practical help, as social media can provide emotional support too. Dongming adds: “Disasters can trigger extreme emotions – stress, fear, a sense of loss, shock, hopelessness and sometimes denial. Releasing negative emotions is essential for recovery. Research suggests that listening to radios or reading the news can help, but through social media people can now actively vent their emotions and seek support and reassurance.”

Dongming said, social media gives the public much greater power in disaster cases and it also has benefits for rescue teams too. “Traditionally, officials have led the response to incidents but social media now empowers the public to have more influence over rescue and recovery operations. Local people can offer valuable suggestions and feedback to rescue teams, and they can help each other by discussing their options online, which can be useful if the official response is too little or too late."

“Meanwhile for disaster managers, social media allows them to convey their professional knowledge by providing advice to victims and answering their questions. It also means that they can receive much wider recognition for their work as people go online to express their gratitude.”

She has the following tips for disaster managers:

  • Open a social media account and make the public aware of it. Use it to issue warnings in advance of the disaster.
  • Encourage people to use social media to communicate with you and with each other during a disaster. Tell them how to get notifications each time you post – on Facebook, this is done by visiting the official fan page, hovering over the like button and clicking ‘Get Notifications’.
  • Understand who has to approve information before you post it on social media. Once approved, publish it as soon as possible.
  • Provide regular updates so people don’t think you are ‘keeping them in the dark’.
  • Monitor posts by the public, as local updates and advice can help decision-making.
  • Try to ensure the validity of official information, and actively check that information posted by the public is accurate. If not, publish a correction as soon as possible.
  • Be alert to messages from the public pointing out inaccuracies in TV reports or news stories. Use social media to give the true picture.
  • Reply promptly to people’s requests and try to resolve any problems. This shows you are ready to respond and help.

“Social media allows us to allocate resources more effectively in disaster cases,” Dongming adds. “As time goes by, and new features and new media channels are introduced, we expect to see it used in even more innovative ways in the future.”