When emergency comms and life collide

Last week my personal life, my social media and my emergency planning collided spectacularly and it was all a little too close for comfort. On the other hand it’s a gift of a blog and an example to use in presentations and training – there’s always a silver lining.

On Friday I got a cryptic text from my parents who had arrived in Spain the day before for their hols. It read ‘I think there was a fire somewhere near here but we’re OK, don’t worry’.

I immediately Googled Spanish fire and holy canoli the results brought up Spanish wildfires along the Marbella coastline. I chose the BBC from the results and was shocked to read that 4000 people had been evacuated, one person was dead and the fires were still raging.

I didn’t even know the name of the town they were staying in but I knew my parents had no TV and no internet access where they were so I texted back to ask exactly where they were. Turned out to be Estepona, about 20km from Marbella but there was nothing up-to-date on the BBC.

I turned to my trusty emergency friend Twitter, changed my trends centre to Spain and discovered the hashtag #TodosConMálaga which was updating constantly. Unfortunately it was all in Spanish and Google Translate wasn’t really coping with the vernacular very well – the English it spat out was as undecipherable as the Spanish!

I kept watching the hashtag in the hope of finding something in English when up popped a tweet from @Sophie_SophSoph. Sophie Howson turned out to be my guardian angel. Not only is she an ex-pat working in real estate, she also lives in Estepona. She could tell me exactly what was happening in the town and told me to check the website http://www.diariosur.es because the Spanish emergency services were using it to provide regular updates. These were in Spanish but Google Translate coped with them because the language was more formal.

I also used Icerocket to find some local blogs which also kept me in the loop.

Now I had all the information I needed so I could keep my parents up-to-date with the news. Like Sophie they had woken at 4am with the house full of smoke but went back to bed when they couldn’t find any sign of fire. Like Sophie they had woken next morning to a fine film of ash in the house and heaps of ash in the garden.

It was all very scary but by midnight on Friday there was only one fire left burning but under control, thanks to the spectacular effort of 400 firemen and 17 fire planes.

I can’t thank Sophie enough for all her help and reassurance and here’s the thing I love about social media. Once it had all died down (literally) I checked out her profile and noticed a link to her music on Soundcloud. Turns out that when she’s not selling real estate, Sophie is making pretty damn hot dance music. If you’re partial to a bit of deep house I suggest you give it a whirl and if you know any DJs pass on the link.

I love the serendipity you get with Twitter more than any other social media channel. But what this episode of my life did more than anything was prove the worth of social media in an emergency far more than any of the academic papers or books I’ve read during my research in the last three years.

The BBC online news was fine as far as it went, the fires got a tiny slot towards the end of the TV news and they didn’t get a mention in The Guardian.

Just after publishing this I came across Emergency Journalism, a toolkit for better and accurate reporting which would be good for emergency comms people as well as journalists. The site is is an initiative by the European Journalism Centre and focuses on tools that use up-to-date digital technology, including content curation tools to multi-layered live maps, and support media coverage of emergencies such as natural disasters and political conflicts. Hopefully resources like this will change the way journalists work.

In the meantime go Twitter, go citizen journalists and go Sophie!

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