How social media impacts disaster response

From Facebook distress calls to mobile apps directing victims to shelters, social media is becoming a big part of disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

From Facebook distress calls to mobile apps directing victims to shelters, social media is becoming a big part of disaster preparedness, response and recovery, according to Philadelphia researchers.

Dr. Raina Merchant, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was first author on a recent New England Journal of Medicine perspective paper about how social media impacts how we cope with disasters. Below are excerpts from our interview.

How does social media help us prepare for disasters?

It's about making sure we're using the same things for day-to-day that we would use in emergencies. It's about beginning to integrate information about where emergency services may be located, where people can find information for emergency resources. Tools we use day-to-day offer enormous promise. [You might] have an app that you'd use not only for locating the closest grocery store, but also [for finding] the closest shelters.

Increasingly around the country, people are providing information on wait times in emergency rooms. You never really think about using the emergency room until that moment of need, but if every day you're driving by a billboard that tells you about the wait times for the emergency room in your community or you're getting tweets about it, it's something you're going to think about in the midst of a major disaster. You won't have to start from scratch to get this information.

What about using social media to respond to disasters?

I'm constantly reading news about how in disasters people are using tools like Facebook to post messages about needing help. Rather than picking up the phone and making several calls, they're posting on Facebook that they have a need for something. In Haiti, people were posting about being trapped under the rubble. When disasters happen on university campuses, people are posting information about who is or isn't OK. Oftentimes it's happening well in advance of when traditional media sources are providing information about victims. Family members and friends might be more likely to trust information they get in real time from these sources.

How does social media help us recover from disasters?

Recovery and resilience go hand in hand. There are so many things that communities can do during the difficult time of recovery that can help them rebuild their surroundings and be prepared for the next potential disaster. You hear reports of social media being used for psychological first aid, being able to directly provide information to responders about what they went through. We don't have a good system for debriefing. There's an event, everyone wants to help. They want to donate their money and time. They're going to disaster sites. We don't really have a system in place where we can provide people with support after the fact. They're often a bit overwhelmed and we don't have a good system for tracking people and getting them in touch with needed resources. There are opportunities through social media and people posting about their experiences to give them information in real time that they can use.

How would bystanders use social media in disasters versus medical professionals?

Bystanders are becoming a part of response in ways they couldn't before. There have been natural disasters where bystanders were taking pictures that provide situational awareness before emergency services arrive. There have been wildfires where bystanders can actually post videos on YouTube about what they're seeing from their vantage point that aid the emergency medical service providers in determining the best way to respond. Traditionally, we relied on professionals to come in and manage the situation. Now that many people are carrying smartphones that have cameras and recorders. They're able to be mini-journalists and provide situational awareness. It certainly shouldn't replace our current systems, but oftentimes it can help in the process, provide supplemental information. What's cool about social media is the self-correcting that takes place. If you post potentially false information about a major event, there will be other people there with cameras and videos who will say that wasn't what was going on.

Now is the time for the health care community to engage and not be passive in this technology revolution that's happening. These are the tools that our patients are using, so I think we have a responsibility to understand the types of information sources that are there. I have patients who ask me about specific mobile apps. I can tell them where to go to get trusted information.

What’s the next step for this work?

There's so much that's unknown about why people use social media and how they're using it. There are incredible opportunities. I primarily study resuscitation and how we can prepare individuals and communities. Our group is developing mobile apps around CPR training that can provide better awareness and hopefully improve access to individuals. There are lots of other projects around social media and public health, and trying to understand how people are using these tools.

Do you have anything else to add?

The other important thing on the horizon is how to use these location-based service apps. There are some unique opportunities to understand how people can share information rapidly. I don't understand why people want to broadcast to everyone where they are when they're buying a cup of coffee, but I think it would be interesting in a disaster to provide information to those around you about areas that may be safe or unsafe, or where you can get needed help. I think that's an area that we haven't used that will be interesting.

Photo: Raina Merchant

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