Social Media – In an emergency collaboration is key

This last few days has seen Devon and the rest of the South West battered by torrential rain and winds of up to 70mph. The county has had to deal with uprooted trees, collapsed bridges and walls and many more incidents that have caused disruption and delay.

In previous years the level of involvement our web team would have had with incidents such as this would be quite limited. A web page would be created and updated throughout the day warning the public about the dangers and informing them about delays and work that has been done.

Now, I’m not about to say we’re now out in the field in hi-vis clothing helping to clear fallen trees or closing off roads. We’re still leaving that to our highly skilled road teams. What we are able to do now is use social media to share important information about the incidents and help keep people informed. Also and perhaps more importantly other services within the council are able to use social media to help report on these events. A good example of this is @HughHOCC our Highway Operations Control Centre manager, who is now able to provide detailed road updates through Twitter.

We’ve been using social media (primarily Twitter) to report on severe weather and emergencies for a couple of years now and you may have seen earlier in the year when we held a 24 hour Tweet-a-thon using our @DevonRoads account with the aim to be prepared for exactly this kind of situation. During these events we always learn something new which helps refine our approach for the next time. Perhaps the most valuable lesson learnt is collaboration is key.

The council is just one of many organisations involved in responding to severe weather. The Police, Fire, Environment Agency and district councils all have vital roles. Each of these organisations also uses social media to report on events as they happen and last night was no different. What was clear this year was though, there was a much more united effort.

Early on when it became clear that the weather was going to be a problem it was agreed that organisations should be using the same hashtag and each would ReTweet the others messages to help achieve the largest reach possible.

Throughout the day and into the night each organisation contributed a great deal of information into the shared hashtags. This approach made it much easier to ReTweet key messages and also allows the public to view all the updates in one place and add their own.

For me this years approach is a great improvement and has once again highlighted the importance of communicating in these channels. Other areas of our organisation have also provided positive feedback.

Keith Reed one of our Emergency Planning Officers commented “From a personal point of view I have always struggled with Twitter viewing it more as a bit of fun rather than a serious tool. Yesterday and other recent smaller incidents have changed my view and I now see it has a place as a valuable source of information and a useful tool for warning and informing the public and other responders about what is happening. A couple of my tweets yesterday were even retweeted and I picked up a couple of new followers. Having consistent #tags made it easier to monitor.

As an example during a Strategic Coordinating Group meeting yesterday a tweet came through about a collapsed road bridge near Cullompton which our Highway Operation Control Centre had to check was accurate.”

We have also received positive feedback from partner organisations.

Devon and Cornwall Police commented:
“I’m going to write into the social media plan that the hashtags of #devonaware #plymouthaware and #cornwallaware be the defaults we use. They were all successfully used yesterday.
Twitter has gone down an absolute treat over the past two days – I’ve been very pleased with the public and media response to it.

Some interesting early stats show the police alone have gained 500 followers in the last 24 hours with one of our messages being retweeted 77 times to an extra 15,000 people as a result.

It’s still work in progress, but a good platform.”

With more severe weather due over the weekend our teams will be put under pressure again. I am confident that with a united approach we’ll be able to continue to use social media effectively to help the public informed and safe.

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