Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2019.

Chasing The Chatter

Around the world, an army of volunteers equipped with little more than laptops monitors social media activity during all manner of emergencies. That work is contributing to a fundamental change in how safety agencies interact with the public during large-scale disasters.


Most people living in North America know the months between June and September as summer; many who work in the Forest Service know them better as wildfire season.

In Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt’s household, however, the season has a different, and much longer, moniker. “My husband calls it ‘put-dinner-in-front-of-Mar-and-take-it-away-cold time,’” laughs Reddy-Hjelmfelt.

Related Content

Origin Story
How the VOST concept was born.

When major wildfires strike certain portions of the Western United States—a good bet during fire season—Reddy-Hjelmfelt will spend up to 12 bleary-eyed hours each day on her home computer in New Mexico searching through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites for any leads that could help first responders on the ground. Any hunger pangs from missed dinners usually take a back seat.

Since 2013, Reddy-Hjelmfelt has led what’s known as a virtual operations support team, or VOST, for Type 1 Incident Management teams in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Her team of between five and 25 volunteers devote large portions of their free time each summer to sifting through thousands of social media posts that emanate from the affected areas; they are, in effect, the digital eyes and ears for incident command.

Because the work is conducted online, VOST members can be located anywhere in the world; the teams that Reddy-
Hjelmfelt works with include members in New Zealand, Canada, Honduras, and the UK. That approach comes with a few advantages, including the ability of the group, by virtue of its members' farflung time zones, to provide round-the-clock social media monitoring of a particular incident.


The VOST model draws on the magnitude of the global social media community including: 

 2.4 billion FACEBOOK USERS

 1.3 billion YOUTUBE USERS

 320 million TWITTER USERS



Activity definitions according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency

» Activates at the request of an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ)

» Assesses and evaluates where and how a community is sharing information online during a crisis

» Monitors available and public web-based communications on social media and news organization websites to identify crisis needs, damage assessment, and community sentiment surrounding emergency events

» Amplifies or disseminates public
information at the request of the AHJ

» Filters online content and develops
“listening reports” that include a mission overview, trend analysis, and summary
of mission-based results at regular time
intervals requested by the AHJ

» Develops web-based platforms for regional response at the request of the emergency response organization                         

The general term for this work is social monitoring, a concept that has grown steadily since about 2010. Many forward-thinking disaster managers now see this digital sleuthing as critical to their on-the-ground efforts, regardless of the type of disaster they are facing.

“People are on social media talking, organizing, and reporting on what they see, and nowadays it's pretty well understood among emergency managers that you're either in that conversation or you're not,” said Jeff Phillips, the former head of response and recovery for the state of New Mexico, and the man widely credited for inventing the VOST concept (see “Origin Story,” page 65).

The information pouring into digital coffers can come in every conceivable form: A Facebook photo of a blocked road after a hurricane; a tweet from a frantic homeowner who falsely believes the fire is just over the next ridge; a politician mistakenly blogging that a wildfire has been extinguished; a tweet for help from a mother inside a flooded home. Taken as a single data point or woven together to form a big-picture narrative of how a disaster is unfolding, this online community chatter is often filled with valuable nuggets that can make disaster response nimbler, more tactical, and more efficient for both victims and rescuers, according to emergency managers.

Conversely, ignoring it comes at the responding agency’s peril, said Chris Shulte, the longtime Type 1 incident commander in the Pacific Northwest area of the US. Schulte’s communications teams have worked with a VOST the past several fire seasons. “If you can’t control the flow of information, false information spreads faster than the fire you’re working on, and it becomes more of an issue than the fire you’re working on—it consumes the entire operation and you'll never catch up again,” said Schulte. Left unaddressed, the wrong kind of information has potential to fester, sow confusion, erode public trust, and potentially cost lives. That’s why it’s essential to monitor the social media pipeline in emergencies, whether the information is good, bad, or somewhere in the vast swath in between.

“Social media has become such an extremely critical part of what's going on that there's no way you could do this job anymore without it,” Schulte says. “It would be impossible.”


ACTIONABLE INTELLIGENCE The social media information gathered by VOST efforts is a valuable tool for public information officers like Brad Pitassi, center, who use it to inform their messaging to the public in emergencies. Photograph: Brad Pitassi

'Minute by minute intelligence'

However useful, effectively monitoring the cacophony of virtual noise and then turning it into meaningful, actionable intelligence is a significant challenge for undermanned aid groups and government agencies.

Public agencies “just don’t have the bandwidth to do this kind of social media monitoring on our own,” said Brad Pitassi, public information officer for the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Command team. “I can’t pull a 500-pound sled down the road by myself. If I have people who are willing to do that and are eager to help us solve this problem, why wouldn’t I let them help?”

In his day job, Pitassi is deputy fire chief in Maricopa Fire and Medical Department in Arizona, but a few times each wildfire season he’s pulled away for weeks at a time to help manage the public outreach to some of the worst disasters in the country. Like all Type 1 Incident Command teams, the Southwest Area IC team is made up of some of the most highly skilled emergency responders across the region, and is deployed to manage the region’s most complex, and often most devastating, natural and manmade disasters. For the past few years, the team has mostly dealt with large-scale wildfire events, where multiple fires burn across thousands of acres and large populations of people need to be evacuated.

CRISIS MAP Using social monitoring, aid groups can create detailed maps to show where resources are most needed on the ground. Photograph: Standby Task Force

As PIO, Pitassi has the daunting task of serving as the primary liaison between the usually bewildered residents and the hundreds of out-of-towners who have shown up to try and handle response to the chaotic situation, which can often stretch for weeks. Quickly gaining the community’s trust is critical, he said. If missteps are made early, or the public outreach is seen as dismissive or aloof, it’s easy for things to go sideways and for residents to develop an “us versus them” mindset toward responders, which makes the process of recovery extremely difficult, he said.

To make sure that doesn’t happen, Pitassi has worked closely with Reddy-
Hjelmfelt’s VOST over the past few fire seasons. “I'm a stranger from outside on an incident management team, traveling to a place that I probably didn’t even know existed two days ago,” Pitassi said. “When we are dealing with communities in crisis, every bit of information we put out is either going to build trust between responders and the community, or it is going to destroy trust. It is incumbent for me and my team to build a relationship with that community, and understand what their fears are. I see the VOST as the intelligence arm of the PIO shop that allows me to do that.”

Pitassi will typically activate the VOST early in the process, before he even boards a plane to travel to an incident. When that happens, Reddy-Hjelmfelt pings her social monitoring volunteers, and a schedule is created to ensure round-the-clock social monitoring coverage. They immediately begin monitoring social media accounts from the impacted area, building knowledge about the local political, cultural, and business landscapes, including who the local online influencers and community leaders are. They learn important key words or hashtags used in an area, what the local media landscape looks like, and a variety of additional site-specific details that they feed to the PIO team before it even arrives onsite.

Early in the process, Reddy-Hjelmfelt consults with Pitassi to define the scope of the deployment and what the role of the VOST should be. Sometimes, depending on the situation, the PIO might ask the team to monitor everything related to the incident and its response. In other cases, the PIO may only want the VOST to monitor specific keywords or hashtags (such as #AZfire, #WoodburyFire, evacuation, fire, and smoke), or traffic emanating from a specific location, or simply to focus on spreading or amplifying official statements by retweeting and liking.

Using this instruction, the VOST leader creates an incident workbook, which is a Google spreadsheet template tailored to keep track of the intelligence being gathered, as well as each team member’s responsibilities. Throughout a disaster deployment, the VOST provides Pitassi’s team with nightly reports on all the relevant online activity gathered throughout the day. Pitassi reviews the information, and tweaks his public messaging as needed to address rumors or concerns, or to touch on points that may have been misunderstood or confused in previous community meetings.

“It’s that minute-by-minute intelligence gathering and vetting that makes a VOST so valuable,” he said. “As the VOST is pulling in all that information, I am dispatching my staff and my other resources to go out in community and address those rumors and concerns head on. What that does is build trust.”

When the VOST catches something in social media with potentially serious ramifications, the PIO is notified immediately. For instance, on an incident last year, a high-ranking government official in Texas began disseminating inaccurate information that an evacuation order had been given to a town in New Mexico, even though it had not. “The VOST caught it, sent me a screen grab, and in less than 30 minutes after the post went up I was on the phone with the New Mexico Secretary of Homeland Security. He had a good relationship with the official in Texas and they had a reverse message in a couple of hours,” Pitassi said. “By our timeline that is a really quick response for dealing with misinformation.”

Most of the time, however, the online chatter isn’t from high-ranking government officials, but from everyday citizens trying to make sense of the unfolding disaster and how it’s impacting their lives. It can take a trained eye to filter out what’s potentially important from what isn’t, and sometimes even PIOs can miss the distinction, Reddy-
Hjelmfelt said.

On a recent VOST deployment, Reddy-Hjelmfelt noticed a Facebook post from a disgruntled rancher who was upset that fire officials weren’t letting her past the fire containment line to feed her cattle. From experience, Reddy-Hjelmfelt knew this could be trouble, and sent the post to the PIO, someone she hadn’t worked with previously.

“He responded by telling me that the information isn’t something he is interested in, because it’s not about the fire, it's about the cows,” Reddy-Hjelmfelt recalled. She politely reminded the PIO of the community meetings held every other day to inform the public and hear concerns. “I told him, ‘If this rancher is upset about the cattle, do you not think there’ll be 10 other ranchers with pitchforks coming into that meeting, and yelling at you about the exact same thing in person?’ If you know this information at 10 in the morning, by the time you get to the community meeting that evening you can have composed an answer to that person calmly instead of standing there on the stage saying, ‘Oh, I never thought of that,’ and possibly coming across as dismissive without having had a chance to think of it from that person's perspective.”

Aversion, wariness, acceptance

While the use of social media monitoring has grown steadily in various forms around the world, some who have been involved with VOSTs since the beginning are baffled that it hasn’t caught on faster.

There are currently few if any standards governing the practice, for example, outside of some limited performance guidelines and qualifications developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There also doesn't appear to be any widely recognized global organization or association to unify VOSTs. The VOST community remains primarily a loosely affiliated network of do-gooder volunteers.

As a result, use of VOSTs and social media monitoring is scattered and varies widely, running the gamut from professional teams of “digital specialists” at FEMA, which monitor online activity during national disasters, to freelancers on Twitter who put VOST in their handles but aren’t actually coordinating with any official response on the ground.

“We developed this concept many years ago, and I can’t believe that by now there is not a solid, sophisticated VOST in every state emergency operations center across the country,” lamented Scott Rueter, a digital disaster expert who runs the Oregon State VOST and frequently works with FEMA on its social media monitoring activities. “We showed everybody how to do this. We even built all these free tools that are out there. The concept is there, and it’s rock solid. It is a matter of adoption now.”

Despite his disbelief, Rueter is in a better position than most to speculate why the VOST concept has struggled to gain more widespread adoption. For nearly a decade, he has traveled the country speaking with countless disaster managers as an instructor of disaster social media courses sponsored by the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii. From the beginning, Rueter said, many emergency managers were resistant or even openly hostile to the idea of monitoring social media as a way to shape public messaging, which put the emergency response industry a bit behind the learning curve, he said. But that is beginning to change.

“The first few years we taught the course, when we would go around the room so everyone could say why they were there and where they were from, there would inevitably be a couple of them who would say things like, ‘Social media is the devil and it will be the death of America,’” Rueter said with a chuckle. “But that switched within a few years to, ‘I don't want to be here. I'm afraid of [social media]. But I understand that somebody in my organization needs to be able to look at this stuff.’ At this point, I think most emergency managers understand the need for social media. Not everybody can necessarily spend a lot of time on it, but almost everybody understands the need to get somebody on there looking during incidents.”

A lot of this aversion comes from a longstanding notion in the profession that, during a crisis, information should be tightly managed and doled out carefully so as not to spark more confusion or chaos. Even now, the idea of giving up control over the flow of information, especially to outside volunteers, causes some emergency managers to be wary of the VOST concept, Reddy-Hjelmfelt said.

REMOTE RESCUE Cat Graham, co-founder of the Virginia-based non-profit Humanity Road, reviews Facebook disaster maps of Mozambique after a cyclone hit the East African nation earlier this year. Photograph: Humanity Road

“There's a discomfort amongst incident management people about using volunteers. I’ve had PIOs that I personally work with on a volunteer basis who go, ‘I want a VOST, but I don't want your team to do it, I want agency people to do it,’” Reddy-Hjelmfelt said. “The whole point was that the agency people didn't have time, right? I think the problem is that most agency people don't know how to do it. I think this could be the job of someone in the PIO shop during an incident, but nobody ever gets assigned to do what I do.”

Even with a receptive agency, there are hurdles to clear before VOSTs and other forms of social monitoring achieve a more widespread acceptance, Rueter said. The biggest is getting enough unpaid citizens with the proper skill set to sign up for the significant time commitment. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep up,” he said. “Our Oregon VOST team has to keep doing consistent training, team building, and activating. We have tremendous support from our director of emergency management. But if there's nobody there to champion it, it’s not going to happen.”

‘Every disaster is local’

While some public agencies are still struggling to get comfortable with the idea of social monitoring, the private nonprofit sector has been championing its techniques with great success for nearly a decade.

Twin sisters Cat Graham and Christine Thompson co-founded one of these organizations, a nonprofit called Humanity Road, after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. The idea was an extension of the work they had done five years earlier when, after Hurricane Katrina, the sisters set up large banks of computer stations in affected areas to give residents without working phones or Internet the ability get online to communicate with loved ones and begin signing up online for much-needed services. “But when the earthquake in Haiti happened, we couldn't deploy physically with computer gear, so we decided to try to support the same type of information product remotely to the public as they needed it,” Graham said. “We immediately saw the need to assist individuals who were calling for help, who were stuck under the rubble, or looking for loved ones.”

Where a VOST acts like a volunteer arm of the official incident command’s office, Humanity Road and other private groups work in partnership with an array of responder and aid organizations. The groups deploy hundreds of volunteers worldwide to monitor online communication, and look for specific opportunities to connect the dots between victims who need assistance and those on the ground who can provide it, in whatever capacity that may take.

For instance, in 2017, during a large fire in Texas, Humanity Road volunteers noticed a Facebook page where discussions were underway to help resolve a severe food shortage for the livestock in the affected area. Out-of-state charities had pledged to provide hay, and truckers chimed in to say that they were willing to haul it. But there was a key problem with the plan. “The truckers were saying, ‘Well, I can bring the hay, but I can only do it once because it's so expensive to run the trucks down and back,’” said Graham, who is now Humanity Road’s chief operations manager. Humanity Road contacted the truckers through Facebook and provided them with fuel vouchers to help offset the cost of getting hay to the hungry animals. The organization sets aside funds to occasionally make small, targeted direct aid if a situation calls for it.

“Every disaster is different and every disaster is local, so we look at what the local needs are” in any given situation, Graham said, adding that such a targeted, timely response would have been almost impossible before social media. “When it comes to disaster response, it's in the public's best interest to help each other. Historically, it has been neighbors helping neighbors. In this digital age, your neighbor may be right next door or they might be a thousand miles away. The digital connection that we all have makes all of us neighbors.”

Over the years, the sophistication and capabilities of these volunteer monitoring groups have increased, along with their impact. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in 2018, Humanity Road deployed its volunteers to monitor social media sites to look for pleas for help from trapped flood victims. Within hours, the organization had documented distress posts on Facebook and Twitter from about 1,000 separate locations in Houston, and overlaid these distress points on a detailed map. The group shared the map with the US Coast Guard, which prompted the military branch to reconfigure its resources and deployment strategy. “They had no idea of the size of the event until they got our map,” Graham said. “And from that map they were able to rescue 5,000 people from those 1,000 points of distress.”

Humanity Road isn’t the only nonprofit that’s turning public chatter into robust information tools. A group called Standby Task Force, also founded in 2010, uses its worldwide network of trained social monitoring volunteers to put together a variety of interactive digital content for responding agencies trying to manage crisis situations. This includes “crisis maps,” which are online interactive maps overlaid with data points that, when clicked, display everything from on the ground images of damage, such as an impassible road, to requests for help, and any other key information relevant to the humanitarian response, almost all sourced from social media. According to, its volunteers can produce and update these maps in “very close to real time.”

In addition, Standby Task Force volunteers can conduct remote assessments of local terrain and damage by searching satellite imagery and by working with partners on the ground using drones to capture aerial footage. The group also offers agencies what it calls “rapid 3W reporting,” a report detailing which agencies are responding to a disaster, what they will be doing, and where they will be going, so that aid teams can efficiently use their resources for maximum impact and eliminate redundancy. Standby Task Force produces these reports using “statements these agencies make on their own websites and social media feeds,” according to its website.

Increasingly, social media platforms themselves have also created new features to assist emergency efforts. In 2017, Facebook launched a disaster mapping initiative, which uses the global information services data generated by users checking into the app. The data is aggregated to provide real-time visual insights about where people are moving, population density changes, and the location and number of people that have identified themselves as safe within the app. Like the maps produced by Humanity Road, Standby Task Force, and others, these tools give responders and aid agencies valuable insight to maximize their efforts.

With disasters increasing in frequency and severity worldwide, and resources to deal with them stretched thin, experts stress that the digital chatter is too valuable to ignore. Regardless of who’s actually doing the work—paid professionals, the government, VOST volunteers, Humanity Road volunteers, tech companies, or aid organizations—social monitoring advocates are adamant that it must continue and expand further. “It's inevitable,” Rueter said. “Whether you call it VOST or something else, there's no way of denying you need to be on social media.” 

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images

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