Getting volunteers to monitor digital spaces in emergencies
This is a Cross Post from Ben Proctor’s own blog.
There is a practice emerging in the USA called VOST (Virtual Operations Support Team). Emergency Managers in some areas are recruiting teams of volunteers to help out online in an emergency. For a quick introduction see this slideshow put together by Carolyne Milligan (@mm4marketing)
I wanted to find out what it was like working with a VOST so I had a chat with Cheryl Bledsoe from Washington (state not DC).
I started by asking her what day job is
Cheryl: I am the Emergency Manager for Clark County WA. I report to an Administrative Board and am the conduit between our elected officials and our first responders/emergency responder agencies.
During peace time, I have 6 staff who report to me and when emergencies strike, we bring in about 40-60 people from various agencies to assist and help coordinate emergency response. When we aren’t in emergencies, we’re planning for how we would respond and training our emergency responders and volunteers on the plans. Day-to-day, we deal with hazardous material situations, search & rescue and weather alerts. We’re also in charge of community preparedness.
Me: And you use social media?
Cheryl: We started using social media in 2008 after a flooding situation occurred near here and 3 ladies in a church started a blog and began posting truth and rumors which resulted in much publicity. Our agency began to realize that we needed to figure this stuff out. So, my staff now are trained in regular use of social media and it has been a huge benefit for in connecting with our local communities & residents.
Me: And you have a group of volunteers supporting you online: a VOST. Can you tell me what that brings you?
Cheryl: We are still freaked out about whether we will be able to manage the influx of information during a large-scale disaster which is why we began looking at the VOST concept. I had met Jeff Phillips several years ago who originated the concept and began participating on teams myself. I have served as an activator, team member, team leader and now am a team administrator for our CRESA VOST.
Me: And what do they actually do in an incident?
Cheryl: A VOST Team Activator for an emergency response agency defines the mission for the team.
For example this was the mission for a recent activation in Oklahoma
1) Watch these hashtags: #OKWX, #OKTwister #Oklahoma #Tornado for questions, concerns about the emergency response
2) Watch the National Weather Service Twitter accounts and retweet anything they say with timestamps.
3) Watch the community conversations & encourage regular timestamping of data….watch for old data
4) Collect any damage assessment pictures from the tornadoes with any specific geo-location data on those pictures if you can find it.
5) Watching the livestreaming news media for accuracy of reports
Me: It’s all very public. I think that might unnerve some emergency planners in the UK.
Cheryl: The only thing that is public is that it’s gathering public information into one place. You’ll notice that how Oklahoma was responding to the tornadoes isn’t listed anywhere in the work of the volunteers.
The VOST teams watch what is public and gather that into one filtered location so that an emergency manager can periodically check in and ensure that the emergency response is meeting the community concerns & expectations.
Me: So as an Emergency Manager is this really adding value to your work?
Cheryl: Yes! As an emergency manager, I’m way too busy to watch the internet. Prior to use of a VOST, we just simply wouldn’t listen to the community. We would connect with emergency response organizations and limit our engagement with those who would just call 911. That is a very limited view of the world and opens us up to all sorts of media scrutiny for perceived failures in the community. And we’ve had enough of those “respond to the media after the bad situation” moments.
Our engagement now leads the media to contact us first and those improved relationships have gone a long way to improving our community-based reputation.
Me: So where do VOST volunteers come from?
Cheryl: VOST folks are, at their core, trusted agents who can filter down what they see online for someone who is coordinating emergency response. Instead of having to watch the whole internet for how a situation is being reported or affecting the community, I can now touch base with a team leader who can tell me right away what the local community is concerned about.
Volunteers get the adrenaline rush that any of us get out of helping out their community. At their heart, people like to feel like they are in the “know” or the “thick of the action” and being able to watch the online community chatter about the event and feel like they can share good or valuable information taps into that “I’m helping” and makes folks feel good.
Me: Would there be circumstances when a VOST might not deploy or might not be appropriate: I’m thinking about the English riots say?
Cheryl: One of the key activation things for VOST teams is that they serve at the behest of either an Incident Commander (who is in the field) or an Emergency Manager (inside an EOC who serves in a support/coordination role). There is a little debate about whether VOST teams can or should self-deploy, but my fear with self-deployment is that the information that is collected may go nowhere and the work may be wasted.
There is always a role for individual VOST members to play in terms of encouraging people towards official information sources and encouraging good timestamping of socially shared information, but that is not really a VOST activation. There are some organizations like Red Cross, HELP Foundation, Humanity Road and Standby Taskforce which serve more of a recovery-based role and support community and humanitarian response, but that is a slightly different mission than VOST teams which focus on the Response hours of a crisis.
Me: If you had $1million to help with social media what would you spend it on?
- I would privatize the development of VOST teams so that they aren’t entirely reliant on volunteers because I don’t think it’s ultimately a sustainable model because it requires a fair amount of time and effort. Right now, we are reliant on volunteers as they are available. If demand exceeds availability, we will have a problem.
- Then I would set operational standards, training recommendations and consistent outcomes for team so that emergency responders could hire teams during their responses for limited duration response (they would monitor, share concerns and archive the social traffic)
- Then, I would establish regional teams and ensure quality assurance among the teams….This is my long-range vision for where this stuff needs to go to become a reliable resource to the emergency management community.
I wouldn’t waste money on tools….I’d let the private sector worry about that. Govt needs to be out of the tool-development game in my opinions. We’re too slow and really can’t keep up with the market.
Here in the states, I’d like to see VOST teams be placed into the national resource typing categories & standards so that they can become deployable assets. And through the VOST Leadership Coalition, I’m trying to softly encourage consistency of standards among our developing teams.
The failing of other large national volunteer groups is that too much ground-up development results in teams doing different things. The more this resource can be defined and developed, the more the public and communities will benefit from “in-touch” emergency responders.
You can find Cheryl on twitter at @cherylble.
There is a volunteer-led project to develop the VOST concept for the UK. To find out more, to help the project or to explore ways in which local responders can develop VOSTs visit
www.vostuk.org or tweet @vostuk.
VOSTUK is a member of the VOST Leadership Coalition.