Social Media Playing A Greater Role During Disasters

RENO, NV - As funnel clouds stalked the Dallas suburbs Tuesday, shredding homes and hurling vehicles through the air, residents took shelter.

But doing so, many reached for their laptops and smart phones and jumped on Facebook or Twitter trying to locate loved ones and warn others.

Government and relief agencies did the same, putting out information on areas to avoid and where to find shelter.

Increasingly social media has become a networking tool people turn to during disasters. It's happening in northern Nevada as well.

"Every time we have a disaster like the Caughlin Fire or the Washoe Drive Fire we put on Facebook exactly what the Red Cross is doing and what services we can offer," says Karli Epstein, a disaster preparedness coordinator with the Northern Nevada Chapter of the Red Cross.

Epstein says incidents like this past winter's fires bring a huge response from the public. People want to help. People need help. Facebook and Twitter can deliver information quickly to both.

"We have a lot of people who call into the Red Cross during a disaster asking 'Do you need volunteers? What kind of support can I give or where is your evacuation center?'"

Those questions can tie up personnel and phone lines at a time when focus needs to be on response in the field. Still, there's a real need for that information getting to the public.

So, it's all there on the chapter's Facebook page, usually updated every hour or so during an emergency.
Epstein says anyone can go to their Facebook page or Twitter account and "like" it and when a disaster happens, they'll receive every update.

One new tool is a free smart phone app from the Red Cross, showing the location and services available at any active shelter in the U-S.

None of this has escaped the attention of local emergency planners who say intrigued by the possible uses of social media.

Today they still rely on tools like reverse 9-1-1, Alert ID and the news media, to send warnings, but it's likely sites like Facebook and Twitter will have an increasing role in the response to future emergencies.

"We think the use of social media is going to expand a lot," says Epstein.

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