The Disaster will be Tweeted: The Growing Role of Social Media in Emergency Response

By Johanna Schwartz, Communications Coordinator, CCVO

From the moment the first rolling evacuations began in Calgary on Thursday June 20, Twitter was THE place to get up to date information on the encroaching waters. Once the severity of the disaster became evident, it became a way to gather as a community and figure out just what exactly needed to be done to help.

Social media (and for the purposes of this blog, we'll focus just on Twitter) is quickly becoming the front line of disaster response, and for good reason. Quick updates, shared and passed along by thousands of people, can spread a call to action in seconds. As we lean on our smartphones to reach out to friends and family, the hope is that it helps reduce the load on services such as 911 during times of crisis. "Text to donate'" services allow organizations such as the Red Cross to benefit from people's immediate impulse to help. Rather than waiting for updates from traditional media (who now are also just as active on SM), the people have become the media, sharing their own stories, and organizing themselves quickly and effectively. It is also a great way for the city to spread information to the public (Nenshi says we should all stay at home? Ok!)

Check out this beautiful infographic from about the
growing use of social media in disaster response

The first responders in any emergency can come in all shapes and sizes. The team behind YYC Helps are a great example of a citizen-based group who saw an immediate need and pulled together resources quickly to collect eager volunteers and send them to areas of need. Their use of twitter to spread the word via the hashtag #yychelps  and the development of a simple blog site at is mobilizing thousands of Calgarians with remarkable accuracy. Need 10 people to help clear out a basement in Bowness? Done. They are also quick to report if the need has been filled, an important element in the call for assistance, ensuring we aren't driving all over town clogging the already traffic-dense streets only to find all volunteer spaces filled.

Of course, social media comes with it's challenges too. Misinformation can be quickly spread (Tigers at the court house?) and the sheer volume of tweets and retweets can become overwhelming to even the most seasoned user. For me, one of the most interesting questions arises around the etiquette of tweeting in the midst of a disaster. What is considered an inappropriate message? How long should you wait until you resume 'business as usual?'  How soon is 'too soon?'

In "The Perfect Tweet" blogger Mitch Joel asks those questions in relation to the Boston bombings. And while that is a different beast all together, with losses of life and limb necessitating a moment of silence (though just how long is a 'moment' on twitter?), it  raises some points relevant to our local natural disaster. Can you 'clog up' a twitter feed? Should you pull to the side of the social media road and let essential services get through? While the value of retweets are immeasurable, at what point do we hit a saturation point, making other newer messages harder to get heard?

Obviously times of crisis are not the ideal times to use social media to send out any non-crisis news or events, if only because your message  will get lost in the shuffle, but also because you may appear thoughtless or inadvertently opportunistic.  It is also a good time to double check any automatic messages you may have queued up, to avoid sending out tweets that now seem insensitive.

As we continue to embrace new media (to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution WILL be pinned, instagrammed and tweeted) its value as as first-responding tool is more and more evident. New media allows the people to document history, to be active in their community, to spread accolades to volunteers and to shame price-gougers, and to feel connected around the global water cooler.

What we've seen over the past two weeks is the best face of Calgary and its citizens, 140 characters at a time.

Johanna Schwartz is the Communication Coordinator at CCVO. She has been working in the nonprofit sector since 2000 in administration, marketing, consulting and communications. She is a podcast nerd of the highest order, and can be contacted by email at or followed on twitter @janedoughnut