Can we get a handle on social media early in an incident?

Last week I had 5 days of conferencing stuff. I went to Bluelightcamp and to the Emergency Planning Society Welsh Branch meeting. I’m still assimilating the learning from those.

I also spent a couple of days at the British APCO show and conference with Steph Gray from Helpful Technology. You can see what we got up to here.

British APCO is the British Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. Essentially the people who are interested in making sure that communication never fails in critical situations for the blue-light services. Consequently there were lots of shiny bits of kit and lots of resilient control centre systems. They also organised a panel session on social media and major incidents with a great cast-list. I live-blogged from that session and I’ve been reflecting on many of the things that were shared there.

One of the areas of risk within social media in emergencies, in the UK experience at least, is the different expectations, resources and capacity of different responders. I asked a question about that. Mark Payne who is a Superintendent from West Midlands Police said he felt that Gold and Silver Commanders needed to get a handle on this early on in an incident.

What could this mean. In practical terms?

Well in the Police Service a Silver Commander is the officer with tactical responsibility and Gold the officer with overall and strategic responsibility.

As a first step these people should have on their list of things to check

“who’s keeping online communities informed?” and, presumably,

“who is giving me sensible intelligence derived from online communities”

And of course those people will need to have some data about the incident so they can share it with online communities. The traditional model of decide, implement and hold a press conference is pretty dead now (or should be). The new model of decide, implement and share some of your tactical thinking live with the world is going to take some getting used to.

And there is further mud to cloud the waters.

In civil emergencies the Gold and Silver Commanders are the people who chair (respectively) the strategic and tactical multi-agency groups. At the start of an incident these people are very commonly police officers (though in principle they could work for any service). Once the incident moves into recovery they usually switch to a local authority manager.

Let’s imagine their checklists again:

“who’s keeping online communities informed?” and

“who’s giving me sensible intelligence derived from online communities”

No longer just which member of staff but which member of staff in which agency. And where do they get their data and where do they send their intelligence?

We do have the concept of lead responder. Essentially the principle is that the agency with most work to do will lead on comms. That’s pretty sound: in a river flood event the Environment Agency probably has access to most of the critical data. Lead responders still need to get information out of their partners. The fire and rescue service knows where its pumps are, the local authority knows where the evacuation (rest) centres are.

When we overlay the process for monitoring social media platforms for relevant data it becomes more complex. Many police forces seem to have improved their capacity for intelligence gathering on social media but they often use approaches that are slow to deploy. Even if they deploy effectively how much data will they share with partners and who will be looking for the other relevant data. The police know a lot about crime but a lot less about the safety of contaminated water or what reports of flooding in particular locations tell us about the progress of an incident.

This means much more effective integrated comms than many agencies have been geared up for.

One year ago Exercise Watermark found

“In some LRF areas, members of the police force in a strategic coordinating group, rigidly controlled the media messages. In one area, further delays were caused by key flood warning press releases having to go through the strategic coordinating group clearance process.”

Press officers were also concerned about the location of the multi-agency communications cell, a group of press officers from the concerned response organisations. Access to strategic coordinating group members was essential but Tactical coordination group members would guarantee quicker access to the hard facts and figures. Physical location was also important; the press officer in charge of the Suffolk communications cell said that he had excellent access to strategic coordinating group members, and the Chief Constable was available for media interviews.”

(Page 27 3.113 & 3.114 Exercise Watermark Final Report)

How many areas have reviewed their procedures for managing press releases and journalists in the light of this finding?

We need to get much better at all of this stuff.

The Riots Communities and Victims Panel found (amongst many other useful and challenging things) that

“The riots highlighted how far behind many public services are around the use of widely used modern methods of communication, such as social media.”

(Page 12, After the riots The final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel)

So Mark Payne is right.

Are we ready?




I grabbed a couple of minutes with Mark Payne on video just before the event.

Controlling the rumours. Interview with Neil Tipton of West Mercia Police.

I had a chat with Neil Tipton, Web Development Officer at West Mercia Police, on 24 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what he told me.


West Mercia is the constabulary serving the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire (and Telford and Wrekin), and Worcestershire.

We make extensive use of Facebook as part of our regular campaigns. We’ve been using the platform for two years. Since May 2010 we have also had a corporate Twitter account, largely publishing news releases. We make some use of YouTube and have accounts on other social networks largely to protect our username.

We had explicitly planned to use our corporate Twitter account for real time public communication in major incidents as well as day-to-day interaction. We had also explicitly planned to use social media for rumour control around major incidents.

We do not yet have officially sanctioned local social media accounts (for neighbourhood policing teams for example) but this is something we are actively exploring for future implementation.

Trigger and escalation

We had an operational plan in place for policing a march by the English Defence League and opposition groups in the Shropshire/Telford town of Wellington. As part of this plan comms staff were to be mobilised to monitor social media networks to challenge rumours and provide an authoritative voice.

We were obviously monitoring the disorder in London and other parts of the country. Even so the Monday was a normal working day. North Worcestershire is in our area and borders the West Midlands so when incidents were reported in Birmingham that seemed closer to home. That evening I was at home looking at how other forces were using social media. At 2300hrs we received the first question direct to the force twitter account asking us for information on rumours of a riot in our area.

There were not then, nor at any point during the following few days, any incidents of significant disorder across West Mercia. We had very isolated examples of criminal damage and trouble but nothing out of the normal run of policing.

I called the control room, they were receiving high volumes of calls from residents worried that riots might be spreading to our towns and cities. I began tweeting from home, controlling rumours. Social media activity died down again by 0100hrs.

On Tuesday the force started Operation Denver to reassure our communities and keep West Mercia calm. As part of that we started a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for the comms team so there was always one person on duty handling social media.

We monitored Twitter and Facebook and corrected misinformation. We sent public @ messages to individual users if they were repeating rumours and answered questions presented to us. We thought that tone was important. We tried to be friendly and authoritative. We were occasionally lighthearted: I added an #unfamiliarkeyboardfail hashtag at one point. But we were ready to modify that tone if the situation had deteriorated.

At its peak, we were dealing with questions and comments directed at us at a rate of one every 10 seconds and keeping track of whether we had replied and when was a challenge. Hootsuite was a very useful tool to help us to collaborate and check who had done what.

As the week progressed it became clearer that no incidents of disorder were happening within West Mercia and the situation began to calm. Our biggest challenge became finding new ways to say “nothing is happening, the situation is calm”.

On the Saturday we had to police a static demonstration by the English Defence League and other opposition groups in Wellington (the Home Secretary having banned marches). This involved a co-ordinated effort between comms staff for the police and also Telford & Wrekin Council . As well as managing the traditional media, a large part of our communications activites were again focused on social media, where we worked hard to provide timely updates based on fact not conjecture.

One of the challenges in fluid situations like these is that you can state a fact, correctly – such as there are no incidents, everything is calm – but five minutes later something may be happening that contradicts this. However, we tried to be clear and prompt to keep people informed of what was happening and when and always correct or update statements as the known facts emerged.

We went from 2,000 twitter followers to 4,500 in a few days. The force website received a months worth of traffic in just one week.

Learning points

It was fun to move from what might sometimes be considered a back office role to the front line and nice to have a feel of direct relevance. We had a lot of positive feedback from the public about our use of social media including someone who said that we had “Really changed my perception of the police”.

The force had always acknowledged the importance of social media but now that officers have seen it in a real environment they really understand its relevance. Social media impacts on how these events unfold. Our Chief Constable David Shaw has been very clear that social networking is now a permanent feature both of our thinking and our response to major events and incidents from now on.

The challenge for us is to sustain the momentum. We want to keep our followers and continue to explore the engagement opportunities this affords us. Encouragingly, we haven’t had lots of people turning off our Facebook updates from their newsstream or choosing to stop following us on Twitter in the days since the protests and national disorder.

Message to other category one responders

Don’t underestimate the volume of messages you will need to handle, or the staffing implications this may bring

Tone is really important.

You need to have systems to allow you to handle social media work between several members of staff, particularly for Twitter, where the standard interface is difficult to work with.

Neil tweets as @neiltipton and he has written up his recent experiences for the Guardian

You can find West Mercia Police on twitter @wmerciapolice and on Facebook at

Working with Helpful Technology to exercise social media plans

We’re pleased to say that we’ve teamed up with Helpful Technology Ltd to provide social media simulations tailored to category one responders. Helpful Technology brings the Social Simulator platform which enables real-time modeling of online news, blogs, forum and social media traffic – such as Twitter and Facebook – within a secure environment. The Likeaword Consultancy brings expertise in digital skills for emergency planning. Between us we can deliver a compelling and convincing scenario played out in real time and with dynamic responses to players’ actions.The two companies were talking about linking up well before the recent civil disorder. They believe that it has highlighted the importance of planning and exercising the online component of emergency response.

Steph Gray (@lesteph) from Helpful Technology said

“There are specific skills needed to engage in networks like Twitter and Facebook effectively as a corporate organisation, but until now it’s been hard to train in a realistic way. The Simulator offers a secure environment that we can tailor to local situations, reflecting local media and specific local forums as necessary. Exercise control staff can interact dynamically in the platform, responding to social media updates from other participants and maintaining their own corporate presences.

We’ve run successful, highly-realistic exercises that really stretch comms teams in the public and private sectors and we think that the package has a lot to offer emergency responders.”

Helpful Technology’s platform is a great tool to really test the communication aspects of plans. It can be used to deliver an exercise focused entirely on the online aspects of an incident or to provide an online environment as part of a wider live or desk exercise. I’m thrilled that, working in partnership, we can offer a completely seamless exercise design, implementation and review service to the emergency planning community.

For more information on the system visit and for more information on the integrated offering to the emergency planning community contact us.

Things to pay attention to: Exercise Watermark

Exercise Watermark was one of the largest civil contingency exercise every conducted in the UK. It involved all layers of emergency response in large parts of England and Wales from central government to local communities in “playing” a realistic flooding scenario. The purpose was to test the country’s plans and procedures and to identify areas for further improvement.
The Exercise ran in March 2011

The interim findings were published in June [opens a PDF click here for the source page].

The final findings will be published in September.

I want to highlight a couple of areas.

Working with traditional media.

The report had a team playing the role of media organisations and therefore was able to test how effectively responders worked with conventional media organisations.

There were a number of learning points raised in the draft report and I strongly urge everyone in communications in a Category One Responder to review pages 38 and 39 pretty soon. There were issues of “empowering” press officers and of individual responders not being active in terms of their media relations. I was particularly struck by paragraph 4.57

In LRF areas there were some problems with Police Gold Commanders exacting rigid control over the multi-agency media cell, even to the extent in one area of stopping the Environment Agency issuing such flood warning press releases, until they had passed through the local Gold clearance process, which led to more delay.

Clearly a police Gold Commander hasn’t got the power to stop the Environment Agency issuing press releases but this highlights the need to exercise multi-agency communications arrangements and to train everyone involved in the response.

There are three draft recommendations in this area:

  • Draft Recommendation 20 – Press Officer media response training should cover time management and resource issues such as mutual aid so that organisations can exercise and develop mutual aid techniques, ‘like for like press officers’.
  • Draft Recommendation 21 – Press officers should be empowered to ensure communication with the media is not delayed by awaiting sign-off from senior management.
  • Draft Recommendation 22 – Top Line Briefs from the News Co-ordination Centre should be briefer and more frequent, while the West Yorkshire LRF releases should be used as a template for future multi-agency releases on flood incidents.

This is before we move on to social media. Where the draft report has much to say (pages 39-42).

Social media.

11 out of the 26 core agencies and government departments did not engage at all with the exercise social media stream. Some agencies who did engage used social media as a broadcast tool, essentially treating it as an extension to conventional media. The report is very positive about the benefits that can flow from effective use of social media and there are these three draft recommendations as a result.

  • Draft Recommendation 23 – There should be an audit to assess social media capability, capacity and access within government departments and the emergency responder community. Actions that remove barriers to social media interaction should be considered.
  • Draft Recommendation 24 – Government departments and responders should ‘lead the conversation’ and engage with social media.
  • Draft Recommendation 25 – To improve consistency, emergency responders need to undertake a basic social media training so they understand the language, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats posed by social media. Training should also cover practical guidance on use of existing internet tools to monitor and respond to comments on Twitter etc.

It was an event of considerable scale and significance. It highlighted many areas where the public should be reassured by the plans and procedures that are in place. That should not prevent responders from overlooking the many and very sensible recommendations for future improvements.

How 3D printing could change emergency response

This week, one of my favourite radio programmes: In Business ran a feature on 3D printing. I’ve been aware, in principle, of this technology for a while but I had it filed under the “interesting only for home electronics geeks”. This programme made me look at the possibilities all over again.

Essentially 3D printing allows you to use CAD and modified inkjet technology (and maybe lasers) to create complex structures in layers.

You can spread a layer of powder and use a laser to sinter it in the places you want a structure. Then spread another layer and another. Or you can spray a substance that hardens on its own (like concrete). So far so clever.

Once the technology is industrialised (and it is being used in commercial, if niche, applications already) it could herald a future of “mass customisation”. Your products build on demand to your highly specific requirements. Again, clever stuff but not really my field.

What I hadn’t considered but this programme highlights is what this will do to the supply chain. Instead of mass manufacturing components in different parts of the world, shipping, storing and assembling them: all you need to do is ship the raw material and print on demand. Shipping loads of powder offers a much more efficient and attractive prospect than shipping many things of many sizes and shapes. Whole items, modular house, cars, tables could be printed on site or at least very close by.

It will clearly be very disruptive to companies, states and communities.

Imagine the implications for disaster relief. Instead of maintaining strategic stockpiles of shelters, tools, equipment in anticipation of a disasters as yet unknown. Responders would only need to hold stockpiles of raw material (and have sufficient printing capacity and energy to make use of it). Responses could be rapid, targeted and tailored.

Of course what would make it really useful is the ability to print food. That could be a bit further off.

For more on 3D printing try these links (open source 3D printing project)

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