Utah cities turning to social media in emergency situations
One day she's announcing a new Cafe Rio coming to Herriman City. The next, she could be distributing information about a wildfire forcing evacuations in the city.
The messages may vastly differ, but Nicole Martin does it all on the same medium: Twitter.
With over 2,000 followers on the @HerrimanCity account, Martin, the public information officer for the city, said using social media has become one of the city's most important tools in communicating with the public when disaster strikes.
And with three fires burning in or near Herriman during the last three years, Martin has had plenty of experience sharing information quickly on Twitter and Facebook.
The city began using social media about six months before the Machine Gun Fire sparked in 2010, she said. On that day, they were able to tweet out information about evacuations, where residents should go, what roads were closed and where help was needed.
"Our residents are enormously appreciative," Martin said. "You can't give them too much [on social media.]"
Joe Dougherty, public information officer for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, used Herriman as a prime example of good use of social media during a Thursday workshop at the Utah Leagues of Cities and Towns Annual Convention.
It was standing room only during Dougherty's presentation, with about 100 city officials and leaders throughout the state attending to learn more about how to use social media to better inform residents. About two-thirds of the crowd were already on Twitter, with only a few volunteering that they were not sold on the idea of spreading information through online networks.
"Social media is here to stay," Dougherty told the crowd. "It's time to stop hating social media."
Dougherty said most of those who dislike social media are those who have never touched it. He advised city leaders who were in attendance to set up social media accounts before an emergency situation, so they can quickly disseminate information once a windstorm, flood or fire hit their city.
"We want to get the right information to the right people at the right time to make the right decisions," he said.
Dougherty said he recently conducted a training with Sanpete County Sheriff's Office authorities, who set up a Twitter account during his presentation. The account putted along with about 30 followers, until June's Wood Hollow Fire erupted. The sheriff's office began pushing information out through Twitter, informing residents and members of the media about evacuations and advisories. Quickly, they grew to more than 700 followers.
"One of the most important tips is to do it now, before disasters happen," Dougherty told the crowd.
Martin said Herriman city officials are constantly evolving with social media and attend trainings and workshops to help further their skills. Her advice to city officials who may be contemplating whether to use the medium is to get an account set up, and begin using it.
"Just start," she said. "Get over the fear and dip your toe in the water."
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