Social media: one more way to warn of disaster

May 26, 2011

Residents of Slave Lake, Alta., have complained they had little advance warning to get out of town before wildfires ravaged their community. (Ian Jackson/Canadian Press)

When wind-whipped wildfires were bearing down on Slave Lake, Alta., 10 days ago, residents had little advance warning to get out of town. Eventually, an evacuation order was given, but by that point the town's radio station was burning and roads coming and going from Slave Lake were shut down.

Provincial officials said the fire was moving so fast it was impossible to issue a bulletin through their public warning system. Police went knocking on doors to warn residents. But for many worried evacuees, information they could use wasn't coming through traditional channels like radio or TV.


"We'd check the Facebook quite a bit," resident Anthony Cyr said. "Cellphones were spotty, too, but the texting was working OK."

As has been happening during so many other natural disasters or public demonstrations around the world, social media became a go-to source of information and a place for those on the ground to share with others what they knew about a tense situation.

But what about before the fires actually hit Slave Lake? Could timely messages from authorities via Facebook or Twitter have helped alert or warn residents?

Turning to Twitter

Government and weather organizations in Canada are using social media to provide updates and information. Here's a sampling:

Disaster sociologist Jeannette Sutton, who studies the role online technologies can play in a disaster, says social media is now being explored as a warning device.

"It is understudied because it is a pretty new idea," she said in an email Wednesday.

Sutton, who works at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, doesn't look to social media for issuing the initial alert.

She does, however, see it as a useful tool for providing people with information after that initial alert, particularly for people who are already online.

'Not a silver bullet'

"For a warning system, social media can be very useful, especially for the ability to monitor what people are saying and doing in response to the alerts they receive."

Sutton recognizes, however, there could be fears or concerns about using social media as a warning system.

"Technology is not a silver bullet. And social media is just one tool in the tool kit. You can't rely entirely on this technology."

For one thing, not everyone has a Twitter or Facebook account or access to a computer or cellphone.

But around the world some communities are looking to social media as one way of alerting residents to imminent disasters. Mexico City wants to set up an earthquake alert system though social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said earlier this month he hopes to have the system working by Sept. 19, the anniversary of an 8.1-magnitude earthquake in 1985 that killed as many as 10,000 people.

Mexico City currently has an early warning system that uses sirens to alert city residents about quakes that occur hundreds of kilometres away on Pacific coast fault lines. Some people complain the alarms in their neighbourhoods can't be heard or don't go off.

The Philippine government is also encouraging the use of social media as a disaster warning tool.

Across Canada, municipal governments are on the front lines for helping residents deal with disasters, while provincial governments generally have overall responsibility for emergency response.

TV, radio warnings

In Alberta, for example, the provincial Emergency Public Warning system was set up after the 1987 Edmonton tornado to give "warning to Albertans over the radio and the television to take action and protect themselves from disasters," according to its website. "This system is activated by trained users living throughout Alberta who, using their telephone, will deliver vital information regarding a threat to the safety of Albertans."

In Ontario, the province's emergency public warning system includes Red Alerts and Emergency Information Advisories.

The Red Alert program was launched three years ago, and is based on the Amber Alert program for missing children.

Red Alerts are issued "when there is an imminent threat to life, public safety or property," according to Emergency Management Ontario's website. They could be issued in situations such as a large fire or explosion, a chemical leak or spill, a nuclear emergency, an extreme weather event or a transportation accident. The alerts are posted on the EMO website and distributed through media outlets, an email subscriber service, text messaging, RSS feed and Twitter.

Emergency Information Advisories are issued in situations such as large-scale power outages or major transportation incidents and distributed in ways similar to Red Alerts.

In Edmonton, emergency officials have a presence on social media sites, but don't use it as their primary warning system, says Joanne Sheardown, an emergency management officer for the city.

"There's still a part of the population that doesn't sign up for Facebook or Twitter."

Rather, Facebook and Twitter are used to get out updates to Edmonton residents after any initial warning.

'Reliable information'

The city made its foray into the social media world a couple of years ago after a series of large windstorms. Suddenly Edmonton and its weather situation became one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter worldwide.

"We wanted to make sure that we were providing reliable information so if someone was retweeting messages, they were retweeting our messages and not rumours," says Sheardown.

With the rapidly evolving nature of communication, and the way people get their information, Sheardown sees much virtue in being active on Facebook and Twitter.

"I think you need to get your messaging out in as many different ways as possible because there's so many different audiences out there who retrieve information differently," she said.

And that means looking ahead, too.

"We need to start planning now for incorporating these tools into our public information campaigns in the future," said Sheardown.

Ultimately, she expects Facebook and Twitter will be used for getting warnings out.

"We're not all there yet."

With files from CBC News, Jackie Johnstone and The Associated Press
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