Skagit Bridge Collapse Public Information: Social Media

Skagit Bridge Collapse Personal Lessons Learned
Marcus Deyerin
Northwest Washington Incident Management Team

Twitter, by far, was the most valuable tool for me to provide information to the public and media. Although I lost my ability to make calls and send SMS messages, I was able to send Twitter messages throughout. However, I was not able to successfully send tweets with a photo attached in those first two hours or so. After my second unsuccessful attempt to send a tweet with a photo, I gave up and decided to focus on text only tweets, since I figured the news helicopters were providing ample visual coverage of the scene.

It was only the next day that I was able to survey my “@ mentions” where I saw several media who were trying to contact me directly. They wanted me to either call them for an interview (which obviously I couldn’t during the first couple of hours), or to follow them on Twitter so they could direct message me. For a single PIO, this is a conundrum, because you want to be available to the media and Twitter isn’t a bad platform for that, but trying to monitor the huge volume of traffic directed toward you in those early moments is close to impossible. This is where a virtual operation support team (VOST) could really be useful. I’ll talk more about how I could/should have utilized VOST in a section below.

A couple people have observed and questioned the wisdom in regards to me tweeting in an official capacity from my personal account – most notable among them Gerald Baron. I am in total agreement with Gerald that this was not ideal, and it’s not something I would want to do again. Here’s why it happened… the Twitter account (@NWIMT) for the regional incident management team I’m on is what I should have used. Unfortunately, my day-job home agency transitioned to a new email system last week, which subsequently required reconfiguring my mobile device (which wiped my Twitter account info). That occurred on Tuesday – and I simply hadn’t re-added the NWIMT account to my phone’s Twitter client. When I attempted to re-add it at the scene, I couldn’t remember the account password, so I just had to go with what I had – which was my personal Twitter account.

I offer the above not as an excuse, but rather explanation. The obvious lesson here is if you rely on a particularly critical tool for something, you can’t wait even a “few days” to get it back in place. Having said that, we all live in the real world, and that kind of thing is just going to happen. My personal account is the tool I had available to me, and again – while not ideal – it served the purpose of getting the information out during the critical period when timeliness was everything. In a crisis situation, flexibility and adaptability are key; and good now is better than perfect later.

Personal lessons learned:

  • Twitter reigned as the superior tool for getting information out rapidly to a broad audience. [Note to Twitter – please, please don’t do anything vis-a-vis your API or business model to mess this up for those of us in the emergency management field.]
  • Twitter worked when phone and SMS didn’t. That won’t be true in every situation, but it was interesting nevertheless.
  • Photos attached to tweets are great – but may not always work in a constrained data flow environment
  • Once the media calls started coming in, I was no longer able to tweet. If I need to do this again, I’ll direct media calls to a different phone I have, so I can take calls on one phone and use the other phone for tweets / social media
  • If you’re sending tweets with time-sensitive info, add your own time stamp (e.g. 1015hrs). I remembered the value of this about half-way through my own efforts
  • The public doesn’t care about “official” titles – they value the quality of the information being provided. That’s not to suggest we in official roles shouldn’t care about which account we use; but we do need to understand that the audience will go where the best information is coming from – so if you want to be the official and best source – then you better be providing the best information.

I had a couple of emergency management colleagues contact me through Twitter to see if there was anything they could do to help from afar. I want to extend my appreciation to those folks (you know who you are).

This concept of “digital support” enabled by technology is increasingly being utilized around the county and the world, and is known as a Virtual Operations Support Team. It’s already been explained and highlighted elsewhere by others far better than I ever could [<– Jim – maybe link to other blog posts about this?]. When that support was offered to me, I didn't have the wherewithal to know what kind of assistance to request. But now with the benefit of retrospect, here's what I should have asked for:

  • Monitor my Twitter @ mentions for media contact requests. I simply didn’t have time to check @ mentions, and then subsequently filter out media requests / questions from the overall stream of retweets. The VOST could compile and forward the relevant ones to me via email, which I could then either respond to directly, or forward to the appropriate agency specific PIO.
  • Monitor overall social media and traditional media coverage. What questions do people have that aren’t being effectively answered? Are there rumors or mis-information we need to address?
  • Establish and populate an incident specific website. In a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional response, this is perhaps the single biggest need during the early hours of the incident, but also the biggest challenge. It’s easy enough to populate the content quickly, but you have to have an existing website place (or dark site ready to go), and on a server robust enough to handle the surge of traffic you’re likely to receive.
  • Help build a media cheat-sheet. On Friday morning my second task was to put together an Agency Point of Contact sheet for the media. I noticed a lot of reporters were asking the right questions of the wrong people, if for no other reason than because they weren’t entirely sure which agency had purview over a given subject. I listed every stakeholder agency involved, the POC and contact info, and the topics or issues for which that agency was the most qualified to answer. After the 12:30pm briefing on Friday, I handed this out to media and they seemed to really appreciate it. It would have been really helpful to have this at least started the night before.
  • I know there’s more a VOST could have probably helped with, but these are the things that stick out in my rearview mirror. While there are a number of excellent established VOST organizations out there, this is definitely a capability we’ll be looking to develop further within the IMT I serve on.


    Tomorrow we’ll have Marcus back for an overview of his dealing with the media and coordinating with other agency PIOs. Stay tuned!


15 thoughts on “Skagit Bridge Collapse Public Information: Social Media”

    1. The only credit I take is the bandwidth I’m providing. This is all Marcus, and he deserves the kudos.

  1. I am enjoying this information on Lessons learned and look forward to hearing more. Like Gerald Baron I too was out of the area when the incident started. I was with two managers when their phones started blowing up, we had several agencies heading North with resources to assist in the rescue. It still astonishes me how fast details/pictures and sometimes video of an event spreads like wildfire via social media. The PIO’s job definately has become even more important to getting the accurate information out there! I’m so glad that is not one of my jobs!!

    1. Kevin:

      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. The landscape and responsibilities for PIOs have really changed in the last few years. Frankly, I worry for the day when I’m acting as a PIO and I look out into the crowd and see it being half and half media and citizen-journalists. Because that’s going to happen. (See Bruce Schneier’s post from earlier today: And it will only get worse.

      So long as you Ops guys keep saving the world, though, we’ll do our best to help keep the media away from you!


  2. Great stuff! The idea of a virtual support team is brilliant. It sounds somewhat similar to a virtual Joint Information Center (JIC) or Joint Information System (JIC). We continue to try out a lot of different methods of collaborating here in California – and I’m really intrigued by trying to support a PIO who doesn’t have time to organize a “formal” JIC in the early hours. Thanks for sharing your info! This case study validates a lot of the “experimentation” happening in the world of emergency public information practitioners.

    1. Kelly:

      I’m floored that you stopped by and commented on this. I’m happy to help you with the idea of VOST’ing. I’ve been involved in the idea for a while now, and am currently working with making one based in our local Medical Reserve Corps. There are some great case studies out there, including this one from the Shadow Lake fire:

      Give me a buzz if you want to talk more about it,

  3. Thank you to both of you. I’m learning a lot from this series. And I love the idea of the VOST, which would be useful for any kind of time-sensitive communications, not just around emergencies.

    1. Nedra:

      Now THAT is an interesting idea. VOST has always been, for me, an emergency surge tool. But I can definitely see how it’d be useful in non-emergency situations now that you mention it. I’m going to put something together (some day) and try to coordinate ideas with you.

      Thanks so much!

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