Social Media has exploded on the internet yet emergency responders have been slow to adopt this new media. What are the tools that Fire departments can use to get the message out during an emergency event? Each social media tool has a purpose and role – and may or may not be appropriate in all situations. But – let’s be clear, “new” and social media tools are here to stay – so learning about them is and taking your place in the conversation is a must for fire departments. Traditional tools like e-mail and the press conference still have a role but what are the most popular “new” media options for public information officers?

1.CounterAct Rumors with Micro-blogging

Micro blogging is a micro blast or sound bit of information. It is used when a short message is all that is needed and no interpretation or details needed.

Main Street closed at Smith until 16:00 on June 7 due to traffic accident. Take alternate route.

95 characters with spaces

It can also be used to convey real information from the official source so the public doesn’t rely on rumors. Though – it is important to have a single person who understands the media as the “instant” nature can be a negative if your message is not sufficiently clear in the 140 characters available to you.

2.Send URGENT Messages with Broadcast Text Messaging

Broadcast text messaging is typically reserved for the emergency events that require responders to get an URGENT message to the population. An example would be a Tsunami warning. The warning goes to everyone in an affected area via a text message to their cell phone.

The Cry Wolf Factor: It is important to note if you broadcast text media for NON URGENT events like traffic re-routing or day to day information about the fires in the city – your audience will tune out. The ability to reach the public by their cell phone is a powerful tool - Use it wisely.

3.Blog to Create a Following

Just like publishing articles or having a by-line in the local paper – without the editor between you and the public. Blogging is an easy way to get the fire departments message out. However, blogging is best reserved to tell a story and create a community with careful thought to content. Blogging during an event is a powerful tool as long as your blogs are carefully crafted and supportive of the overall story your followers have come to expect.

4.Create a Public Information Podcast Hub

Fire departments are increasingly turning to multimedia to get their message out? Why? Because audio and video content is more interesting for their public and interesting content means website visitors will stay longer and be exposed to your messaging longer.

A Podcast series is like having your own on-line radio station as a public information hub. Multimedia or audio or video content also known as podcasts are a tool of choice to augment text based tools. According to a study in Public Relations Review (Eyrich et al, 2008)[i], 35% of public relations practitioners use podcasts. Podcasts are effective media during a crisis when writing time is limited and the spoken word or video can be used to communicate more effectively than text.

5.Use Podcasting During Emergency Events

How else can you use podcasts? Fire Department multimedia podcasting during emergency events is used by the View Royal Fire Department in Canada to get the word out during an emergency event to the media and stakeholders including city officials, so the Fire Chief can deal with the emergency.

Podcasting no longer requires special streaming to preserve bandwidth or technical skills. Tools like DailySplice’s Podcast Station™ host the content on their own servers making the tool available to most sites and do not carry ads like YouTube video content.

Using new and social media is not free – fire departments need to commit time to create an effective communications strategy. As always – start with a plan and ask “what are we trying to accomplish?”, “who will maintain the information”, and “how will we measure success?” Then choose an easy to use tool that matches your goals.


New Media Tools for Emergency Services Communicators

Nina Eyrich, Monica L. Padman, Kaye D. Sweetser, PR practitioners’ use of social media tools and communication technology, 2008, Grady College, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, United States