During the floods in Calgary, Canada, this weekend, the social media manager of Calgary’s police did a fantastic job answering questions, diffusing rumors, using social media to pull in additional information from citizens, point people to volunteer opportunities, and to activate officers to work extra shifts via Twitter. It was important to get information into the social awareness streams, where citizens were looking for information they were not able to get access to through regular government communication channels (like the emergency phone numbers). The Calgary Police added the Twitter hashtag #yycflood to every tweet they sent.
And then a remarkable thing happened, that I haven’t seen in any other context so far: After sending out hundreds of tweets, the police has reached the tweet limit per day and had to stop updating the public. They had to work with Canada’s Twitter representatives to expand the rate limit:
The news spread rapidly and was labelled by some as a major fail in emergency management, which indicates the reliance on resilient communication infrastructures that people trust and turn to in crisis situations.
In a pretty genius stroke, the police redirected their official communication through the Twitter account of their own Digital Communications Officer, Jeremy Shaw, who took over tweeting from his personal Twitter account on behalf of the official police Twitter account:
After a few hours the account was restored:
Responding, directing, informing, calming down, diffusing rumors:
Recent social media experiences of first responders and utility companies have shown, that citizens need to know that they are heard, that their issues are taken care of and that help is on the way during a crisis. Cst. Jeremy Shaw tweeted with them through two long night shifts and did a fantastic job handling repeated requests for information in a very calm and polite way.
Here are some of the tasks the Calgary Police Twitter account was able to fulfill using Twitter as a parallel and resilient communication infrastructure, while the formal communication channels were used for live-threatening situations and to direct first responders to the scenes.
1. Dealing with volunteers
In a very polite way, volunteers were informed that the police did not want to put them in danger and prevented them from showing up on the scene:
2. People were pointed to alternative information sources, such as the city’s frequent blog updates:
Or the utility company’s updates:
And also that other reliable sources people had trusted were temporarily not available:
3. Assuring people that officials are listening, that they are being heard
It looks to me as if every single citizen tweet was responded to, either by directly answering a question about the flooding situation in a specific area or even just to thank people for their feedback. An important direct lifeline, when all other channels are overwhelmed.
4. Asking officers to work extra shifts:
Off-duty officers were asked to work additional shifts and were asked to check in:
Priority message to all CPS Officers – Members who are able to work extra shifts tonight, please call 403-428-7927.—
Calgary Police (@CalgaryPolice) June 21, 2013
5. Asking citizens to verify updates on the ground
I was also happy to see that the police was open for citizen first responder reports and updates, however I only saw one tweet of this sort. The potential is obviously enormous: Some of the reporting responsibility can be distributed across the shoulders of citizens who are observing impact first hand. It’s impossible for one social media manager to fullfill all these different roles. I believe what the Calgary Police did was smart: They focused on direct feedback and on providing the lifeline that obviously many citizens needed at this point. They also served as a connector among many different first responders and different information sources. Adding on the task of pulling in citizen reports to this role is almost impossible: The sheer volume of incoming information needs to be automatically processed and directed. For future purposes, they could use other types of reporting platforms such as SeeClickFix to monitor impact or automatically analyze impact similar to USGS’ Internet Intensity Map.
6. Diffusing rumors to avoid panics, lower anxiety
Here is an example of promptly responding to the rumor that a dam broke, but I also saw a few updates in response to concerned citizens who were worried about a rumor that the zoo had to kill its animals:
Or diffuse rumors about looting: