State, county use new and old tech to get word out during emergencies

Maryland residents get a phone call about it. Then a tweet on Twitter and status update on Facebook. Then a story in the newspaper and a message on TV. Whatever it is that needs to get out, state and county agencies are using all kinds of technology to tell people about emergency situations.

In Carroll County, the Office of Emergency Management is tasked with getting the word out during emergency situations, like when hurricane winds are knocking down trees and blocking roads. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency has the responsibility of informing residents from all over the state.

Disseminating information has typically been done by informing traditional media outlets, like TV and radio stations and newspapers. While that is still being done, state and county emergency planners have begun using social media and other means to inform the public of emergencies.

The Carroll County Office of Public Safety Support Services has a Facebook page and uses the county's Twitter account to get out information on emergency situations, according to Marianne Souders, the county's emergency management planner.

During Superstorm Sandy, the county posted numerous Facebook updates on their Office of Public Safety page telling people of the weather conditions and road closures. The Facebook page, which was created in May, has more than 1,300 likes. Social media, she said, has been a huge help in getting the word out to people in Carroll.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency has established presence on social media sources, according to spokesman Ed McDonough. Aside from Twitter and Facebook, MEMA also distributes information via YouTube, Pintrest and its website, he said.

"We live and breathe this stuff, so we deal with this all the time," McDonough said. "It's walking a real fine line between how do you make people understand the importance and urgency of being prepared all the time versus trying to instill panic in them, which is what we don't want to do.

"We want people to remain calm, but we want them to be prepared."

Using social media to distribute information means MEMA's message is sent out quicker, McDonough said. Social media also allows people to get in touch with MEMA to report damage or issues that officials were not aware of, he said. By getting feedback from residents using social media, McDonough said they can contact local emergency personnel to respond to particular concerns.

A downside to using information gathered from social media is that there is no filter or fact checking, unlike traditional media sources such as newspapers, he said. During Superstorm Sandy, a Twitter user was found to be sending misinformation regarding flooding at the New York Stock Exchange.

"Obviously, social media has some concerns, and we have to learn to deal with that, we need to learn to find and correct things that are being improperly posted by other people out there," McDonough said.

Another drawback to social media is that people think that they can get emergency help by sending texts or posting something on Twitter. While 911 centers may be able to respond to those sort of communications in the future, McDonough said they cannot now. Calling 911 is still the best way to communicate if there's an emergency.

On top of using social media, Carroll's Office of Emergency Management also uses the 911 phone system to reverse dial people in the county to warn them about emergency situations, Souders said. The system allows the county to call a certain area, say a neighborhood where there was a gas leak, without having to dial everyone in the county.

The county used the reverse 911 capabilities to warn people in southern Carroll about roads with downed power lines during Hurricane Irene in 2011, Souders said.

"We didn't want a lot of people getting up to go to work at 5 o'clock in the morning and stepping outside and [finding] a live wire in their yard," Souders said.

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