Last week San Diego State University hosted a two-day event
called Exercise24 that was developed specifically to test the effectiveness of
using social media in an emergency. In response to the criticality of
developing new ways to respond to disasters, the participants came from around
the world and included US European Command, the United Nations, and the Mexican
The catastrophe scenario imagined by the Exercise24 had all
the elements of a Hollywood disaster flick in need of a Bruckheimer. Called
"Trigger Quake," the exercise kicked off with a simulated 9.2 earthquake in the
Aleutians. This was followed by an enormous tsunami striking the California
coast five hours later, which ruptured offshore oil wells and triggered 7.2
magnitude aftershocks all down the San Andreas Fault. If SDSU's intent was to
provide the responders with a load of critical emergencies to deal with over an
extended geographical area, then this nightmare scenario hit the mark.
Around 09:30 am Pacific time on Friday, a flurry of messages
by event participants started hitting Twitter:
X24 IS A TEST, NOT REAL Earthquake! Coronado Beach has snapped. People in the water!
X24 IS A TEST, NOT REAL News warning for tsunami after quake! What do you do in case
of tsunami?? TV says to flee!
X24 IS A TEST, NOT REAL Product of tsunami a tanker
sailing on coast of Baja CA carrying 20,000 tons of oil shipwreck aground in
X24 IS A TEST, NOT REAL Social media reports of bodies (human and animal) washing
ashore @Laguna Beach, Dana Point, Leucadia and Del Mar.
"You get a lot of citizens who become your eyes on an
Eric Frost, director of SDSU's Immersive Visualization Center, or VizLab.
"You get people reporting on not only things like a fire but a traffic accident
or whether Mrs. Smith is still at the convalescent home. People come to take
care of their own community rather than expecting the government to do all of
it. This is citizen journalism."
Working along with SDSU and its partners in this exercise
were the United States Navy and the website inrelief.org,
which provides humanitarian and relief news in disaster impacted areas. The
site serves as a clearinghouse for emergency information and in a real
emergency would be monitored by organizations like the American Red Cross to
track needs and develop solutions. During the test, participants and the public
were asked to check into the site to be sure it was capable of handling the
huge amount of traffic a true emergency might produce.
The general public was also asked to find and follow the
emergency sites on Facebook
and Twitter in order to find out
whether it was easier to them to get information that way. A written release about
the scenario noted: "Essentially we're challenging the public to teach response
groups what they need and want re: social media engagement in a very real sense
and then put it all to work,"
is difficult to find a silver lining around the nightmarish cloud that was the
Haiti disaster in January, but if nothing else it left emergency responders with
some important lessons learned, not the least of which was how useful social
media as a communications tool during a disaster.