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Social networks in emergency management

By Mari-Len De Guzman

(PART 3 OF 4)

Following is part of the transcripts from the first COS Roundtable on Emergency Preparedness, held on August 12 at the Centre for Health and Safety Innovation in Mississauga, Ont. COS editor Mari-Len De Guzman moderated the discussion.


John Hollands, corporate account manager, Ontario Service Safety Alliance

John Parish, chief, provincial fire sector, Municipal Health and Safety Association

Andrew Harkness, senior strategy advisor, healthy workplaces, IAPA

Ralph Dunham, board member, Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness

Doug Morton, director, life sciences and business management, CSA Standards

Jason Lakhan, Gowlings

John Saunders, provincial director, disaster management and international response, Canadian Red Cross – Ontario

Moderator: [em]What do you think of new technologies, particularly the popular social networking sites, as modern-day communication tools for emergency or crisis management?


Hollands: I think you need to know your source. One of the values of being a member of Safe Work Associations is that because we are so close to the regulators and regulations, so we have to be very careful as far as what we recommend and suggest as far as information. Both the Ministry of Labour and the WSIB have announced and are communicating information through Twitter, and clearly as regulators they have a very high standard of care, standard information and responsibility.

As far as technology, I think people are first in any disaster. Organizations need to express that constantly. And to allow people a very easy access to information and updates on what’s happening within the organization, what support they can get – HR issues, family support issues, advice – is terrific now. Because either through a crisis hotline or through a dedicated intranet or Internet website, the organization and the public sector is clearly taking full advantage of that.

We’re still a little cautious about things like Twitter and Facebook because it’s used for so many things it’s hard to feel that there is a standard there. And it’s so easy for someone to click another link and get off to somewhere else. And then they’re not getting the right information.

Jason: You’ve raised an excellent issue with respect to overall emergency management and it’s often overlooked and that is the importance of uniform and responsible communication in the event of an acute situation. Because from a legal perspective, you want people presenting uniform message to the media and not inadvertently or inappropriately admitting legal liability.

But more than anything else, projecting the appropriate corporate responsibility stance in response to what’s happened.

Harkness: You do need to know your audience and I think that there’s a concern that when you use tools like Twitter and Facebook and the like, that is dealing with a specific demographic. And as such you should look at that as part of the overall communication plan. Who is our audience? What are we trying to get out?

I can, again, give you examples from sort of internal concerns. Many of us have spam and virus protection tools and the like that are going on and it’s not uncommon to have, say, an emergency e-mail address that gets caught up in spam so therefore it doesn’t get through, or if it does get through, employees don’t recognize who is sending that message. It’s coming from the pandemic planning committee, well I’m not sure we have one. And I’ve been taught not to open those e-mails because of whatever is there.

So with those kinds of issues, too, are looking at – you have two levels of communication: the external, being responsible to our clients and to the community; but as important if not more so is how do we make sure internally that when we run into these types of scenarios, is there a dedicated e-mail or website location or Internet positioning that our people need to be equipped with. And again, it’s a critical piece to make sure that that training and understanding is in play. It can be devastating when you really do think your message is going out and the frustration of (learning that) nobody heard it.

Saunders: That’s a challenge that we found. We’ve been looking at it from different perspectives. How do we do an all-out call-out. We’ve got a phone tree system right now so our 2,000 volunteers of Ontario, how do we notify them when they need to respond?

But then we start discussions about that at the municipal level. Let’s say there is a chemical spill, a truck overturns on a highway, a dangerous chemical is released. How do you actually notify people in their homes not to leave their homes? Shy of a civil defence siren, if somebody happens to be watching TV they might see a banner across the bottom of their TV.

But what we found is that there really is no such thing as one solution. We thought of a mass e-mail going out to all of our volunteers, for example, saying that we need you to let us know of your availability to be deployed. We’ve got many of our volunteers that don’t have e-mail, they resent the fact that that is being used so much as a communication vehicle of choice.

Phones are our backup. Our youth volunteers love Twitter and Facebook – that’s their favourite way of communicating. So if I need to communicate with our youth volunteers, that will be the tool I use.

But there isn’t one current tool out there that fits all. So whether it be for notification that there is an emergency happening – you can mass broadcast to all cellphones with a text message in a geographical area – but what happens if you have cellphones that don’t accept text messages.

So there’s a lot of technology out there. How it gets adopted into emergency management needs to be carefully looked at. And I completely agree with you, Andrew, you need to know the demographics of your workforce and what is the best methodology. And sometimes low-tech is the best solution because in some cases, if all of your solutions are high-tech and we lose infrastructure for a couple of days, you’ve lost all your solutions. So I’d also encourage redundancy. Whatever your solution is, always have a redundant system.

Morton: I agree with what John had said. I think the issue with technology, certainly within our emergency management standard, the issue of communication is a major part of it. What are you trying to communicate and how, and certainly with technologies like the Internet and Facebook and Twitter are certainly ones that we would want to consider, but again it has to be very carefully planned.

And working the other way, as John mentioned earlier, use of the Internet to keep your employees at home if that’s an appropriate thing to do, and have them work through the Internet through a VPN connection if that’s what it happens to be, is another aspect of it that’s becoming very important.

Parish: There are some municipalities, when you’re talking about the chemical spill-type thing, a few municipalities, not all of them, do have systems in place to try to meet those needs.

A lot of municipalities don’t have that sort of thing and they are relying on the knocking on the door. You can do it ten times and there’s ten different people in the same place that you didn't evacuate because you didn’t get them all. So emergency things like that of trying to communicate with people no matter what you do becomes very, very difficult to actually cover everybody so you need a combination of different systems in place to do that, and dealing with the closest to the need. Well, you may have to do that several times before you actually get everybody that you want out of those areas.

So in the emergency services system we always say that our poorest thing that we have in place across Ontario is communications. And that’s within the emergency services. The fire, police and EMS do not communicate well together because they all have different communication systems. And even at an emergency, the same thing happens there: you have a command centre and everybody has got a different communication system, so there’s a big delay in time of actually communicating so when we talk about communication in the business, in the emergency services, in the municipality, it’s always the thing I guess that we really haven’t got in place to work properly eventhough we have all these different tools that we try to rely on.

So there is no consistent communication in emergency in Ontario or I can safely say probably in Canada. I know for sure in Ontario.

Hollands: I think we need to lever other technologies as well. Consider the internet and these things are very common but you don’t consider things like smart meters and they’re becoming very pervasive across the province. And wireless technology that can be triggered from the central command post to a blue light, out in the hallway. There are things we can be doing that we really don’t have that overall public plan in place, but there is technology that’s becoming more and more reliable and more integrated into the systems that the public uses.

This is one thing I think we need to talk about is how do we leverage the technology, partner with the utilities for example who are running that so that we can use those tools.

Related discussions:

[em]Are Canadian organizations ready for an emergency?

Preparing for H1N1 resurgence[/em]

Better coordination between public-private organizations

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