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A disaster and media response coordinated 140 characters at a time.

Most people would agree social media has great value during large scale disasters. I can tell you first hand about the countless times I used social media to spread the word about thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards and fires to thousands and thousands of people at once.

But few can see the value in social media for the smaller scale disasters, like a single home fire or when a car crashes into a house. You may be thinking  “Car into House, that’s random.” Maybe so, but that’s exactly what happened last night and what I want to use to demonstrate the important role  social media can play even during a small disaster.

Yesterday afternoon I saw a tweet from Fox 29 reporter Chris O’Connell that he was working on a story for the 6pm news about a family forced from their home after a car smashed into their house. I emailed Chris with information on how the family could get help from the Red Cross. I didn’t get a response right away. Since I wanted to make sure the family got help as soon as possible and seeing the possibility the Red Cross would get positive news coverage (I am the Communications Director after all), I got impatient. So I replied to one of his tweets saying the Red Cross could help.

Here is the initial tweet exchange between Fox 29’s Chris O’Connell and myself

I got a tweet back a little while later from Chris saying the family was calling for help now. Our emergency response center (We call it the Bridge) dispatched a team immediately and help was soon on the way. That was a very gratifying tweet to read. It may be a small thing to just about everyone else, but a big deal to me.

The family was very upset. Their reaction was typical of what our volunteers see everyday after a fire or other disaster. It’s very traumatic to lose your home and the uncertainty that comes with it. And even though the Red Cross couldn’t fix everything, it could provide some comfort, some hope, in what can seem like a hopeless situation.

I’ve included below an edited version of how Chris O’Connell’s 6pm and 10pm stories turned out and the prominent mention the Red Cross got in them. But the most gratifying part was not the publicity we got, but rather, the knowledge that the family last night and for many nights to come would be staying at our one of a kind Red Cross House – Center for Disaster Recovery with a roof over their heads, clothes on their back, and food in their stomach — soon to be on the path back to independent living, thanks to the Red Cross.


We know the Red Cross SEPA Chapter helps people in disasters, emergencies, and crises and in severe thunderstorms, fires and property catastrophes throughout all seasons from the cold winter months to the hot summer days. Many times whole families are tragically displaced from their homes during a disaster and the Red Cross commonly seeks to find them shelter and assist them with a short term and long term plan for recovery. But what happens if the disaster victims have pets? What is their fate? Are they unfortunately left behind? Do recovery services extend to the pets of survivors? That’s what the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team has been working on for a year now. With the help of a dedicated Red Cross volunteer, Jen Leary (pictured), who championed the idea of supporting the pets of disaster victims, the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team was designed.

The Red Paw Emergency Relief Team works in conjunction with the American Red Cross SEPA Chapter and partners with them at an emergency disaster scene.  As soon as a Red Cross responder finds that there is an animal companion of a survivor at the scene of a disaster, Red Paw Emergency Team responders are alerted and spring into action to meet the needs of the beloved animal and to transport them to the appropriate facility. The Red Paw Team is an emergency response and animal welfare nonprofit that supports the Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties. Displaced pets are cared for and kept up to 30 days, until family members are able to take them back. Family members are not charged for this care, instead all basic pet care due to a disaster is free of charge. Red Paw is able to make this happen through the generous support of donations. To find out more about Red Paw, Click here.

Jabril Redmond, guest, volunteer blogger

ImageIn today’s technology-savvy age, our generation has become accustomed to having access to breaking news as soon as it happens.  We no longer have to wait to find out information when a disaster strikes from traditional media outlets such as local television news shows and newspapers.

Rather, through various social media outlets, we are fortunate enough to know the who, what, when, where, why, and how within minutes after a disaster strikes.  It is almost impossible not to know when an emergency situation has occurred given that most of us are already glued to our smartphones on a daily basis.

Just last night, our Red Cross SEPA Chapter communications team used Twitter to inform the public and local media outlets of our response to a serious water main break at 21st & Fitzwater in South Philadelphia.  SEPA Chapter staff and volunteers set up a reception center at Stanton School at 17th & Christian for those displaced by the water main break. Four displaced families and their pets took advantage of this reception center.

Over the course of the hours of our response, which went from about 11pm until 4am, Twitter served as a great communications tool between our communicators and reporters on-scene as well as media outlets’ assignment desks. It allowed us to update information about our response in real-time, and gave access to the local media to report these updates just as quickly.

In fact, the social media outlet really came through for us in this particular situation in that we were able to secure an interview with local news stations, by coordinating the interview over Twitter (see photo). NBC 10’s reporter Marisa Brahney tweeted Sara Smith, our communications specialist who was on location at the reception center, to find out where Red Cross was offering assistance and how to meet for an interview. Sara, in turn tweeted Marisa back and was able to arrange a meeting spot for an interview. ThImageis interview then aired within a couple hours of the meeting. In this instance, Twitter was a great help in networking with the media and keeping them updated regarding our whereabouts.

Earlier, twitter helped set up another interview between another of our team members and 6ABC’s Kenneth Moton. 

When one of our team members replaced another one, @RedCrossPhilly used twitter to notify its followers and the media of the change so they knew who to follow for reliable information.

(I encourage you to check out SEPA Chapter’s Twitter feed and the hashtag #southphillywatermainbreak to see all the tweets from overnight for yourself and how this worked.)

This situation is a perfect example of why I view Twitter as a very effective value chain.  The local media news stations’ followers, as well as Red Cross’ followers, were able to stay informed in the moment via Twitter.  In turn, those two groups of followers “re-tweeted” about our efforts to their followers, enabling even more people to receive up-to-the-moment updates about the water main break and response efforts.

By: Lana Pizzo