Digital First Responders

A new Twitter friend popped up yesterday, and boy did he
jump into the deep end. Mr. Poirier goes over the why (and more
importantly, how) social media should be integrated into the
day-to-day of your friendly neighborhood

He boils it down to four points: 1) Be the official source, 2) Open
the two-way street, 3) Be honest, and 4) Recruit, standardize and
innovate. I have no quibble with any of them. In fact, I don’t know
any governmental PIO who would argue with numbers one and three.
Number two is a sea change that many will come around to eventually
and number four? This is the area that, while not wrong, could use the
most fleshing out and is something I’m actively investigating and hope
to update you all on shortly.

Mr. Poirier uses the Red Cross quoted term, “digital first responder,”
as a possible way to surge our public information staff. I’ve been
working with some emergency managers on the idea of a “virtual
operations support team,” or VOST to do just that. It’s a really neat
idea that ends up being a trust exercise done on a high wire. Scary,
but once it works, man do you have a powerful tool.

The thing I wanted to comment on specifically here was Mr. Poirier’s
term, “digital first responder,” though. While I’ve heard the term
many times before, it never jogged a specific memory before today, and
what a powerful image it presents.

Thanks to the amazing public safety sector here in Philadelphia, I’ve
had the opportunity to hear from folks in Magen David Adom, the
Israeli EMS organization. They cover the entire country and, as you
can imagine, are stretched to the breaking point with such an amazing
charge. They have developed a volunteer corps that is actively
integrated into day-to-day activities of the MDA, the first
responders. Regular, everyday citizens with specialized training and
24/7 notification ability. When something happens, MDA dispatch
contacts the first responders closest to the scene and, if they’re
available, they respond. And start sizing up the situation, and start
administering aid if necessary. They are in contact with central
dispatch the whole time.

This digital first responder could very much be the same. A deployable
volunteer with special training that is actively integrated into our
responses. They’re most likely to spot the initial problem, be closest
to the scene and available to help. By working closely with your PIO
(central dispatch), they could start assessing the situation,
collecting and correcting rumors, and issuing official, approved
messages HOURS before the JIC is set up.

What an amazing parallel! Thanks so much, and well met, Chris!

Definitely check out his blog at

Update from Nedra Weinreich for those of your interested in the work that MDA does. Apparently, there is a similar volunteer EMS service that is run by chapters around the world called Hatzalah. Just goes to show that with volunteers and a need, anything can happen.


8 thoughts on “Digital First Responders”

  1. To a large degree I think digital first responders already exist. With the pervasiveness of smartphones, status updates, and photo sharing witnesses to events/incidents are sharing lots of incident intelligence. The larger challenge might be how to search, analyze, and apply the information already being gathered.

  2. Greg:I’m in complete agreement. The ability exists, without a doubt. The next step is learning how to integrate all of those resources into an official response. How do we harness it?Thanks, as always, for stopping by!Jim

  3. First I say two steps forward ten steps back -> Although I agree on Official source it’s the discredit that accompanies: “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.” It totally discredits the Public as a resource and everything that’s been proven thus far or stated by Admin Fugate & others many times which includes gathering critical intel at the onset. Also had some Twitter discussion with @readycat Catherine Kane IFRC Senior Officer, Corp Comms. & @patricksallee Chief Development Officer for the American Red Cross about the “4EverVerified” Digital Volunteer. You can volunteer for 4 hours to Tweet & forever are verified on your profile, it sends the wrong message. I’ve seen someone use the verification as some sort of badge they are a disaster expert. It not just the Red Cross, orgs like Humanity Road & others would be included. It tells the public “Trust our information no one else, it’s verified” . . . that’s the perception, seems to make every other Tweet/message inconsequential. And that I think endangers lives not saves them.

  4. Dawn:I don’t think that’s what either of us is saying. Chris says that accurate information is available from the public, and we need a way to filter that to the right people: the responders. My post actively asserts that we need a way to not only do that, but actually pull members of the public into the response.As for the work of ARC, their digital volunteers have paved the way for this kind of work, and I’ve appreciated the work they’ve done for years. If someone is using Twitter verification incorrectly, I hardly see how ARC can control that. It’s not a perfect system, I agree, but right now it’s the only one that’s out there. And the next one will be better.Thanks for bringing up some great points,Jim

  5. Dawn and Jim: It’s not a complete discrediting statement, though it cannot be ignored either. Fact of the matter is that people will provide bad information. (Some intentional and some simply due to second hand nature of information. This is seen every day when events unfold.) However, as I do state, the point is that the PIO/Emergency Management organization does need to take the time and effort to validate information best they can and provide the accurate information to the public. (Just like they do now, just Social Media allows for more input and more output.) This is why the volunteers are important to have, as we saw with Irene and other events a LOT of information will come into and it takes a lot of effort to validate this information.Don’t get me wrong, information from first hand accounts is outstanding, but it still needs to be validated to ensure accuracy as the slightest variation could put people at risk. To this end, ensuring solid training is available and constantly using the process will help put this in motion and make it a great resource.Now, one correction of statement here is required on “validated sources” I was not implying to validate individuals and/or volunteers. The recommendation was for the official PIO and/or emergency management official accounts to be verified by Twitter, etc so people know which accounts are the “official” place for information. (Many counties and states have already started this process and work it into their communications and branding to ensure people know where to look for validated information.) As mentioned in the post and above, training of volunteers and creating a solid cadre of people to help the information flow when things get complicated is key.Really I’m not recommending anything that isn’t taking place today and/or is that out of place with existing emergency communication practices. 1) Obtain information 2) Validate it 3) Get it to those who need it. Just Social Media has opened a bunch of locations to get information quicker and to provide it quicker. Without solid processes in place this only complicates the actions that should already be taking place.

  6. It’s been shown that Twitter is pretty much self-correcting, “embellished and completely false information” as you call it is no different than any seen on other types of platforms, the news, press, EM’s & agencies themselves, nor is it any different from any other types of communications past. The audience I’ve seen reading the posts (via comments) may not be privy to facts I just stated so are taking it at face value hence I say discrediting as in unbalanced & slighted. Esp when they is no reference point, “many people have embellished & completely false info”, really? what is many and where’s the reference. I hear it now, “watch what you see on Twitter, mostly made up & false I just read it, so & so from FEMA said so.” : )A few agencies and EM’s right now on Twitter using personal accounts that look official but are not. Mostly because local gov wouldn’t allow but you would never know it. Many more ghost accounts with those who won’t identify so a misnomer to classify anyone. And you can train people how to Tweet but they probably will not & may never be able to give real assistance. Sure they can answer questions & push out info and lessen the burden to a degree but more on that here via link something I forwarded to ARC What I & other’s do is more of a special ability, you may find a volunteer who can do it but won’t be able to teach it. Why reaching out into the virtual community is key.Lastly speaking from what I know re: Verification: First Twitter had it in 2008 then they didn’t citing expense, time involved, among other issues but were leaving those accounts that were already verified as they were then looked to introduce in Beta to limited numbers At the Emergency Social Data Summit there was talk I recall from ARC & others about it so as with the newer 140 program ARC piloted a program Twitter didn’t just arbitrarily start verifying accounts to my knowledge .’Twitter works because Twitter is’ the more you regulate, construct & make rules the more you lose the essence of why it’s worked so well in the past . . . appreciate all the comments, dialog is always good, the end result I want to see is the same as everyone else only I have a view from both inside and out.

  7. Dawn I think we’re saying the same thing here. My point is just a gentle reminder to folks to validate information. (I’m not FEMA so I’m not sure where people are going to get the impression that FEMA would say any such thing, but I promise you they WILL tell you just as I did that information should validated prior to being pushed to the public.) To this end you make my point, there is no difference between social media, main stream media, etc except for volume of information. I fear many people forget that.Beyond that Twitter has not proven its self to be “self correcting” I can pretty much ask you for the same reference materials for that stated fact. In fact, from following events side by side with official sources and social media I would say there is typically hours lag time between any potential “self correction”, nothing quite like the real thing to see how information flows. But this is my point, PIOs and emergency managers can become part of the process and help validate information and push out the correct information as a validated source faster than this “self correcting process” and this is important.All my article is attempting to put light on is the fact that social media is not a magic bullet in emergency management. It is a tool that helps us get more information in and back out faster. Existing processes should help in keeping this moving and getting information back out to the people. The skill volunteers would be provided is nothing more then volunteers in an EOC call center. (collect the information and provide it to the EOC so it can be validated to be sent back out.)Finally, he use of social media by PIOs and emergency management organizations should be official use. Over coming the complications with your home organization to use it is part of the process, but going off reservation during an emergency simply to use social media is not good business practice. (You run the risk of creating competing official sources during an emergency and this is not wise.) Focus efforts on how the tool can be used to empower your communications then move forward. It is key in emergencies to maintain the official source of information and maintain the authenticity of information. I would recommend if you cannot get your organization on board to then partner with NGOs like Red Cross and others who are using the tech officially to have them push official, validated information on your behalf. The thing we have most to fear at this point is too many locations for the public to have to look for god information, when the key should be to consolidate to official sources so people know where to look.

  8. There is a flood of info out there on self-correction from a few years back and recent, myself have dozens of screen captures from specific incidents. Article after article , white papers, & individual agencies experience. Self correcting happens often within seconds, a picture that surfaced on Snopes, bad location (numerous examples Boulder Fire), and much correcting “Official” info. ppl notice. I really hope everyone stops giving opinions (I think, I would say) based on what they think they know or read, it endangers public safety and becomes engrained in those who do know nothing else and will ultimately be to the detriment of all. Your recommendations are of no use to me, the last one also incorrect & something I never asked for or mentioned, no grasp yet of the public is a resource & there may be an Official source but will never be an only source in today’s information age. The thing to fear is no one is listening . . . Have to cut the thread off here, anything else I’m on Twitter @northlandfox & Linkedin, thanks all.

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