January 21, 2020

Twelve Lessons About Social Media and Natural Disasters

One of Jeff Warner's many amazing photographs of Golden during the Indian Gulch Fire.

During the Indian Gulch Fire in Golden in 2011, Councilor Bill Fisher and I found that we were able to use our email lists, websites, and social media networks in ways that were pretty helpful to community members across Golden. After the fire, we put together a report describing what we had done, how well it worked, and the lessons we drew from the experience. In the months after the fire, we shared informal versions of the report with City Council, city staff, and the community, but Bill and I thought it would be worth sharing a slightly cleaner and slightly more polished version. It took a while, but we’ve got a slightly more formal version of the report we can share with anyone interested in learning from our experience.

Although the Indian Gulch Fire occurred a couple of years back, long and challenging fire seasons are probably here to stay (as Coloradans experienced yet again this summer), and the devastating floods of the past couple of weeks ago are a reminder that Colorado communities are susceptible to other crises, as well.

In reviewing and cleaning up the draft, we found that the observations and conclusions are still accurate and relevant. Because we had built strong email, web, and social media networks, because we weren’t part of the formal chain of command, and because we had earned trust and credibility from the community, we were able to fill a communication role that community members desperately wanted but which city and county officials couldn’t provide.

The short version of our lessons learned:

  1. Community members were hungry for information, and the official communication channels (while important) couldn’t move quickly enough to provide what the community wanted.
  2. Providing frequent updates, even if there wasn’t much new information to report, was extremely important to community members.
  3. Bill and I were effective in our ad-hoc communication/engagement/liaison role in part because we spent a lot of time on the ground talking with first responders, community members, and others.
  4. Doing a good job of gathering and sharing information was time-consuming.
  5. There can be some trade-offs between speed and accuracy, but local governments can’t rely exclusively on their traditional systems for aggregating and vetting information; people in the community are generating and sharing huge amounts of information and they aren’t waiting to see what the official channels are reporting.
  6. Because the emergency response was so strong – high quality teams that were well managed and coordinated – Bill and I didn’t have to expend any energy dealing with those types of operational issues. We were able to focus almost exclusively on communication and outreach with the community.
  7. Although community members collectively relied on a wide range of information sources, individuals tended to rely on only one or two. In other words, if we wanted to reach most community members, we had to rely on a range of communication tools.
  8. Facebook and Twitter were the most valuable tools for quick, frequent updates.
  9. Email newsletters played a central role as a less frequent but more thorough bedrock communication tool.
  10. Facebook and Twitter users can dramatically amplify the information they gather. If we provided frequent, high-quality information on these channels, that’s what spread quickly through these social networks. If we didn’t, then the quality of the information spreading through the networks was less reliable.
  11. It was important that we responded quickly to the questions and queries we received via email, our websites, and social media.
  12. Although it was unplanned, Bill and I were a good team for this role. We both had a lot of credibility in the community; by virtue of being on the city council and mayor, respectively, we were highly connected to the flow of information about the fire; we had both already built up strong email, web, and social media networks; and we were both highly sensitive to the risk of distributing inaccurate information. In addition, we had worked closely together for a long time, and trusted each other, so it was easy to share responsibilities throughout the entire crisis.

Feel free to download the full “Indian Gulch Fire – Lessons Learned” report if you’re interested. We welcome your thoughts on any of this, especially about where we go from here: how can the City of Golden (and other local governments around the country) – during natural disasters and perhaps at other times as well – be responsive to the growing use of social media and other internet-based tools for monitoring what’s happening in Golden and for engaging with the City and with each other as community challenges present themselves.

Jacob & Bill

P.S. Thanks to Golden photographer Jeff Warner for letting us use the photo.

Indian Gulch Fire: A very short survey on how you got news and information!

Councilor Bill Fisher and I, with help from city staff, put together a short (just nine questions!) survey about the Indian Gulch Fire. We are hoping to learn how folks got news and information during the fire, what sources were most useful, and how the city can improve its communication during an emergency like this. We’d be grateful if you could take a few minutes to fill it out.

Take the “Indian Gulch Fire” survey.


Communication During a Crisis: Lessons from Golden’s Indian Gulch Fire

The Indian Gulch Fire just west of Golden wasn’t the first time that a local community relied on social media tools during a natural disaster, and it won’t be the last, but it was the first time here in Golden that the internet played such a key role in our communication and outreach efforts during a natural disaster. The fire, which started the morning of March 20, quickly grew into the most significant fire in the country, pulling in hundreds of firefighters, drawing a federal Type 1 Incident Management Team, and threatening hundreds of homes.

The Emergency Plan
The city had the benefit of a regularly updated emergency operations plan (and that had just been updated two months earlier), and a number of Jefferson County agencies, including Golden, had engaged in a large-scale multi-agency emergency operations exercise just one month prior. The plan, which was quickly pulled off the shelf and deployed as the circumstances of the fire became clear, relied primarily on a traditional communications model: the emergency operations team would compile and verify information about the fire, and they would provide it to our public information officer so that she could periodically brief the news media (with formal briefings and by posting written briefings on the city’s web site). The city would then rely largely on the media to then broadcast that information via television, radio, and print media (as well as the web sites associated with all of those). Because the fire was actually burning in unincorporated Jefferson County, outside the city limits, the county’s PIO ended up being the point person but the basic system was the same. Both Jeffco and Golden also added tweets to their outgoing communications toolbox, as well.

Expanding Our Reach
Councilor Bill Fisher and I then expanded that communications and outreach net. We started by posting much more frequent updates to our individual Facebook and Twitter accounts. We supplemented that information with periodic email updates to our newsletter lists. In my case, that was usually once a day late in the evening, which afforded me a chance to summarize the key information of the day for folks who hadn’t been able to keep up through other means and to offer some more background and detail. Bill and I independently (and then sometimes together) also traveled around town, stopping by the Golden Gate Canyon roadblock, the various staging areas, some of the areas that residents were congregating, and the Emergency Operations Center. We were able to learn more about what was happening on the ground, to hear what residents had learned and what they were concerned about, and to share information with all of those folks. We were posting periodically to our web sites as well.

On the whole it seemed to work really well. A very large number of folks expressed their gratitude for the communication efforts, often specifically referring to the email newsletter, Facebook, or Twitter. Similarly, all of the data I had on my Facebook posts, Tweets, my web site, and my email updates showed substantial visitor and reader increases, and I think the same was true for Bill as well. But we learned a lot along the way, and there are some things we would do differently next time.

Our Question to You
I’ve got some extended reflections below, but if you don’t have time to read all of that, you might still consider responding to this question: In terms of communication and outreach, what went well and what could we improve on next time? We are putting together a more formal survey so we can learn more about what information sources were most valuable and how folks used each of them, but in the meantime we’d welcome your thoughts.

Here are some of my more specific reflections and lessons learned:

  • I spent about half my time driving around and talking to folks and the other half at my computer. That’s not how I would have imagined spending my time during a fire, but it actually worked quite well. One key point: it really did take a lot of time to keep up on the computer, between tweets and Twitter messages, Facebook posts and responding to Facebook queries, blog posts, my newsletter, and responding other email. It also took a lot of time to gather information. If I had limited myself to just the formal news releases as information sources I would have saved a lot of time, but the information I was able to distribute would have been less useful.
  • Physically getting out and making the circuit ended up being critical. I learned a ton about what was actually happening on the ground by doing so, and talking face-to-face with constituents meant I was able to answer their questions and hear what they were most concerned about. Interestingly, the many emergency personnel I talked with every time we made the rounds were really grateful for the information as well. They were all extremely knowledgeable about their immediate tactical assignments, but they appreciated learning more about what was happening elsewhere, so it ended up being beneficial for everyone. In short, while most of the information flow was vertical (up and down the command hierarchies), Bill and I were essentially cutting across horizontally, which seemed to add a lot of value. It also meant we were able to spot some things that hadn’t been noticed. One example: the lack of a clear process for removing the evacuation alert. They would have realized they needed to lift it, but we caught it sooner precisely because we were traveling and communicating across silos.
  • Because the city staff (plus Jeffco and the feds when they showed up) was doing such a great job dealing with the fire itself, it meant that Bill and I could focus more on communication and on the needs of our community members. This enabled us to communicate with staff about issues that needed more attention or about information gaps that might not have been as important from the “protect people and homes” perspective but helped reduce the uncertainty among residents.
  • The conventional means of staying tuned in – TV, radio, and print media plus their web sites – were useful and helpful, and for some people they seemed to work well. But many people were really hungry for information (especially those whose homes were at risk), and the conventional channels were too infrequent and incomplete enough to meet their needs.
  • Many folks seemed primarily plugged in to just one or two information sources (e.g., Twitter and TV news). Most didn’t seem to be plugged into multiple social media channels. Pushing information out using all of those sources was time-consuming but I think it made a big difference in how many community members were able to stay plugged in. One lesson here for the city and for members of City Council is about how much effort is required to do this effectively.
  • Facebook and Twitter were the main tools for quick, frequent updates, and they both seemed to work really well. I noticed that a bunch of folks signed up for my tweets during the fire that were new to Twitter (or maybe had signed up but hadn’t used it before), which implied that they started using it because of the fire. Another reason both were useful: they were both very transparent, meaning that everyone could see what questions were asked and see the answers. That made them both a lot more efficient than email, where only the recipient of my email will see what I wrote to them. In addition, this made it much easier for Bill and I to listen to what community members were saying and asking, and that made it easier to figure out where the anxieties and information gaps were. These social media tools turned out to be great for both pushing information out and for hearing what was going on among residents.
  • Despite how useful Facebook and Twitter were, my email newsletter was a key supplement because many people in Golden aren’t using those social media tools. While they were probably getting some information through the conventional news media, I received a lot of favorable feedback about my more detailed email updates even though they were only once a day.
  • There was a huge amount of information flowing on Twitter, Facebook, and the web independent of the official news releases: reporters and especially just people who had information and stories they wanted to share. On the one hand, we needed to stay plugged in to catch any inaccurate information and to notice what rumors or fears were beginning to pick up steam so we could address them. On the other hand, it meant that key information about the fire, evacuation alerts, and so on was really amplified across the community. I know that Bill and I (as well as our city staff and Jeffco folks) were able to get important information to a lot of people, but the fact that everyone else was sharing and spreading meant that it got to even more people. Communicating really was a shared, community effort.
  • Bill and I occupied an interesting space. We weren’t official voices of the City of Golden, but we had enough credibility that our information was taken seriously. We were both diligent about checking our facts before hitting ‘send,’ and we always tried to make sure the info we posted was accurate. Nonetheless, for any future emergencies we’ll need to think about how to keep the accuracy level high without slowing things down. Ironically enough, the only error I’m aware of was the result of an error on one of the official news releases.
  • It took me a little while to figure out what Twitter hash tag people were using, although I think that was more about my not knowing Twitter all that well. Once I figured that out, Twitter worked great.
  • Although it wasn’t by design, Bill and I were generally able to tag team the effort, so at least one of us was able to push information out most of the time (plus the city and Jeffco ramped up their nontraditional efforts as well, which made a difference). In the future we may want to have a more specific strategy on this.

The punch line: communicating across such a wide range of tools required a great deal more effort than simply relying on the traditional news release-driven approaches, but my sense is that the effort was worthwhile. I certainly hope we don’t face anything like this again anytime soon, but no doubt Golden will periodically face crises like this and I believe we’ll want to use a wide range of strategies for communicating and listening. We’ll need to remain adaptable – who knows how long Facebook and Twitter will be the important tools – but I’m guessing that the basic idea of using a diverse toolbox will be important for a long time to come.

Bill and I welcome your thoughts and observations.