Origin Story

How the VOST concept was born


When Jeff Phillips retired in 2007 after seven years as the response and recovery chief at the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security, he could never quite get emergency response off of his mind. So he decided, almost as a hobby, to volunteer to build a small emergency management program in his longtime home of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.

It was around 2009 that he encountered the world of social media. “At a staff meeting, our mayor said, ‘Hey, you need to get on Twitter,’” Phillips recalled. “At that stage, I didn't really have a clue what Twitter was.”

He soon created Facebook and Twitter accounts for the Los Ranchos emergency management program, and after some experimenting was shocked by their potential. Since there were very few official accounts at the time, when a big storm or other event hit New Mexico, Phillips took it upon himself to tweet out and post any information he could to affected communities, and to amplify messages coming from more traditional channels like the National Weather Service, press releases, community meetings, and news conferences.

It caught on quickly. His followers grew, and so did their expectations for the timely information. “As I was doing that, I realized how valuable this was. People seemed to be hungry for the information,” he said. “Eventually, I found myself providing information on incidents that were way outside of my jurisdiction, almost statewide, and it became rather burdensome. I realized I couldn’t do this by myself.”

An idea began to form: If Phillips was having trouble keeping up with accounts as a volunteer emergency manager in quiet times, how could he or others do it when faced with the time-consuming responsibilities of leading a full-scale response-and-recovery operation? “I thought that I would need to be able to hand the keys off to my accounts to trusted agents, and that's really how all this came about,” he said—the genesis of the virtual operations support team, or VOST. “I started developing relationships with trusted people, whether they were local to me or around the country. I knew I needed to build this surge capacity to meet the expectation I had created.”

Phillips sent messages to several “trusted agents” he had met during his foray into the social media world, and they did a proof of concept at the 2011 annual conference of the National Emergency Management Association. During the conference, a group working remotely behind the scenes amplified the messaging coming out of the conference, tweeting and retweeting information and generally raising awareness. It was nothing fancy, but they succeeded in showing skeptical emergency managers how powerful these tools could be for reaching a wide audience in almost real time.

That fall, they got to try it for real. On her way to the Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon, Kris Eriksen, a public information officer working for the US Forest Service, tweeted a message asking if anyone was interested in providing virtual support for the incident. Phillips responded immediately, and for the next 19 days, he and the group he had put together monitored online communications coming from near the fire and relayed it to Eriksen, and worked to amplify her official messaging to locals. During the operation, the VOST spotted a social media post from a supply truck that was lost on a logging road, and notified the command. A problem that may have gone unnoticed for hours was quickly resolved.

“The success of that deployment really changed everything—it not only demonstrated that it could be done, but it could be done successfully,” Phillips said. “People were like, ‘wow, this is a viable concept.’”