TAMPA — Gone is the heyday of the Emergency Broadcast System, a clunky warning mechanism that requires you to be plunked in front of your television set or listening to the radio, both of which might fail if they rely on a steady flow of electricity.
Who would rely on that shrieking tone when you have a cellphone that can get real-time updates on emergencies that threaten whole communities?
Social media has quietly taken over as the main information dissemination system used by the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and local emergency management offices in the event of catastrophes.
Hurricane coming? Expect to hear the latest weather reports and preparation instructions on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and a host of other social media platforms and apps.
The 2014 Atlantic hurricane season starts today, and those in charge of protecting the masses from wind and water have jumped firmly into the virtual world, where 90 mph flying debris and 20-foot tidal surges can't reach.
“People might have limited communication options in a hurricane, where they might not have a landline but they do have a cellphone,” said Kelli Burns, an associate professor at the University of South Florida's School of Mass Communications who is an expert on social media. “They might not have electricity, but they can use the Internet on their smartphone.”
Social media, she said, offer a chance to give and get vital information in a crisis on a real-time basis.
“You have one central place to blast information out or pull information in from a variety of sources,” she said.
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As the social media outlets of emergency management offices stand ready, the National Weather Service has predicted a near- or below-normal hurricane season, thanks to the development of the Pacific Ocean's El Niņo phenomenon,which tends to inhibit the formation of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.
The outlook calls for a 50 percent chance of a below-normal season, a 40 percent chance of a near-normal season and only a 10 percent chance of an above-normal season. There is a 70 percent likelihood of eight to 13 named storms, of which three to six could become hurricanes, including one to two major hurricanes.
But forecasters always stress it just takes one storm to spread devastation across a community, a city or state.
Preparation is key with emergency management officials, who have embraced the use of social media in the past few years to disseminate information that includes storm updates, shelter locations and evacuation orders and routes and to receive information from the public, Burns said.
“A lot of organizations are using (social media) better,” she said. They are using Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. There are telephone apps available and other ways to get information to the public and for the public to share.
She said people should use their smartphones to prepare before the storm hits.
“People should definitely look at apps,” Burns said. “They should go ahead and download the apps from FEMA and the National Weather Service so that they have one-click access to that information.”
Passing information to and from one another also is important, she said.
“I would say also that Twitter is extensively used in crisis situations because it is such a public social media,” she said. “I would suggest, go ahead and get on Twitter and Instagram, too. They are very big and very public. Facebook is great to update friends and family about how you're doing, but it's still somewhat a private personal media site.”
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There are dangers to social media, too, she warned.
“The downside is that you have to be careful about misinformation,” she said. “If something is reported and it's incorrect, it might spread very quickly. ... Also, you have to be careful with people who will try to scam you in these types of situations.”
Most people in a crisis will use social media to do more than just gather information.
“The main reason people use social media will be to let their loved ones know they are OK or not OK, as well as to ask for help,” she said. “Emergency services and aid organizations are turning to social media to help spread the word about the services and aid they offer.”
Superstorm Sandy may have been a watershed moment in the use of social media in a disaster. During Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, social media were in their infancy, but when Sandy landed in October 2012, social media had evolved into a new tool used by the emergency managers and those affected by the storm that devastated the coast of New Jersey and parts of New York City and did damage as far north as Maine.
Emily Rahimi, social media strategist for the New York City Fire Department, said the department initially used social media to issue warnings when the storm was approaching.
“We were tweeting certain things to help people prepare for what was coming,” she said. “Where to go. How to find shelter. The prestorm tweets we were sending out were getting more and more attention, and as the storm approached, we were seeing more and more tweets from the public.
”When the storm hit here, things started picking up on Twitter, and it was getting busier and busier,” she said. “We were seeing a lot of people tweeting about emergencies happening. Phone service was down, and people were tweeting in emergency calls.”
After the storm, the fire department used social media to help people connect with aid organizations.
“It turned out to be kind of like a three-tiered thing,” she said. “It took on a life of its own during the storm.”
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Eventually, she said, social media will evolve to perhaps become the main source of information-sharing during times of crisis.
“It's very fast and delivers information to very, very quickly,” she said. “Even if you have a loss of power, now you can get that info very quickly. It's grown exponentially over the past couple of years. I could never have predicted what is going on now.”
The National Weather Service, on its website, says this about social media:
“This mode of dissemination, based on real-time simple online publishing techniques, depends as much on the audience as it does the publisher. Social media provides a platform from which content transforms into community.”
Charlie Paxton, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said meteorologists there have embraced the social media blossom. Forecasting weather is one thing. Getting those forecasts to the public is just as important.
Between social media sites and mainstream media such as newspapers and news websites, television and radio, the messages likely will reach almost everyone.
Social media, he said, “doesn't get to all of our customers. Not all of them are on Facebook or Twitter, but it certainly adds to our scope.”
“We are watching what works, which posts are of interest to the people,” Paxton said. “It's also useful in two-way communications, when we are looking for feedback about storm damage, for example.”
He can't predict what the future landscape of critical-information dissemination will look like, but who could have imagined a decade ago, he said, what it looks like now.
“Personally I see change,” he said. “We won't be doing the same things in social media we are doing now. I don't know what it will look like, but it is certainly evolving.”