FEMA focuses on speed, not perfection in using social media


The Federal Emergency Management Agency is using information gathered from social media monitoring when deciding how to respond to a disaster. While official assessments are more thorough, speed is more important than precision, said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate at a Feb. 3 event hosted by the State Department called Tech@State.

"Disasters are like horseshoes, hand grenades and thermo nuclear devices; you just have to be close," said Fugate. "You won't get that time back...speed in response is the most perishable commodity in a disaster."

Recovery following Hurricane Katrina failed because FEMA spent the first 12 to 24 hours of the disaster getting teams into the area to make an assessment and send information back to headquarters, said Fugate. That means within 12 to 24 hours people with survivable injuries were worsening and nothing was actually accomplished.

When tornadoes ripped through Joplin, Mo. in May 2011, FEMA had enough information--although imperfect--from Twitter and Facebook to suggest that the situation was dire, said Fugate.

"The 'official' part is overplayed," said Fugate. "If you want to make social media real you have to see [the public] as a resource rather than a liability."

Despite FEMA's increasing reliance on social media in disaster response, Fugate said he is not "a big advocate of technology." Rather, technology is "just another tool," he said.

"I'm in the business of trying to changed outcomes. Disasters happen, I can't stop them," said Fugate. "No tweet stops bleeding...unless something has actually changed, it's just information."

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