Welcome to the the next instalment in my series of social media tips. These are aimed primarily at a police audience, but hopefully applicable to a wider group of people too, especially those in the public sector. This series of posts will aim to identify some good practice and useful hints and tips for police officers and staff to consider when using social media.

Part 13: Policing Disasters

Parts 10, 11 and 12 of the handbook tackled using social media in public order and major investigations. As I said there, I hear a lot of scepticism about whether it is any use operationally – so called ‘real policing’.


No, this is not a list of policing disasters, but rather the way in which police forces can proactively use social media to improve how disasters such as floods and other natural or man-made events are handled.

You might assume that the first thing to stop in any major disaster would be the communications network. This may well have been the case in the past, but a cellular communications netwrok is surprisingly resilient, and of course the internet was built to route around any problem areas or blackspots. Mobile phones contained their own power supply, and most will continue trying to connect to the network after a user has sent a text or other update. It therefore makes sense for organisations that may have to respond to large scale disasters to consider how best to harness the power of social media in their response.

Social media is a great way to keep information flowing during and after a disaster. Increasingly the public don’t just seek information online, but create it and provide mutual support. This data is real time intelligence which will provide myriad ‘eyes on the ground’ and give multiple points for important public safety announcements to be passed on.

Brian Humphrey from Los Angeles Fire DEpartment has been quoted as saying that “every citizen is a sensor”. What the public do is throw that information out into the void of Twitter or Facebook, and agencies need to consider in advance how to respond to, filter, verify, and make use of all the data. Obviously it should not be the only source of intelligence, but as Martin Brunt from Sky News said at the ACPO conference in July 2011 “for the first hour of major story we relied entirely on Tweets from the public to report. These proved very reliable when eventually confirmed.”

Tips to get started

  • Start early – it is much easier to get a message out if people already follow you and trust you.
  • Figure out your trusted sources early – similarly if you have existing social media accounts you know you can trust, it will make it easier to sift intelligence from rumour.
  • Know how information can be passed to those on the ground – this requires a mechanism to filter and assess what may be thousands of Tweets and updates, and the best way to pass useful information to people on the ground.
  • Know how social media platforms can complement your traditional media, and consider moving your prime effort to social media in the early stages of an incident
  • Allow updates from the field – as I keep saying, social media is a two-way process. Your officers and staff need to know how to use social media, and have appropriate permission and technology to do so before disaster strikes.
  • So ask yourself – if it happened tomorrow, how ready is your organisation?