A Tsunami of Global Disaster Communications through Citizen Journalism

The news started hitting California early Saturday morning with an SMS alarm on my mobile phone – a major earthquake struck Chile, and there was a potential of tsunami activity in California and Hawaii (as well as the rest of the Pacific). First Citizen Journalism Transforming Mediastop – CNN. The news source was right on the story, with real time information flowing into the newsroom from, not on-scene journalists, but through Twitter and Facebook updates.

Another SMS message hits the phone letting me know there was a Twitter list at #hitsunami, and the discussion would include all the most current news related to tsunami preparations in Hawaii. Also gave a link to a web page that was broadcasting a live feed from KHON in Honolulu until the station integrated their feed on the KHON home page.

Back to CNN, cell phone videos began pouring in from Santiago and Concepcion. CNN began broadcasting directly from Chile – not from a CNN journalist, but from a Chilean citizen streaming video through a Skype connection. KHON also began streaming video and audio from a private citizen through BJPENN.COM in Hilo, as KHON also did not have a real time video feed of their own, or a journalist on site that could provide adequate real time information from the city.

Then, the same stream from BJPENN.COM in Hilo showed up on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

Citizen Journalism is here to Stay

News media is changing forever. Citizens now have the technology, and savvy, to provide the world with real time, unedited news feeds 24×7, 365 days a year, and from nearly any single location on the planet. Neither mainstream news media outlets nor governments can fully control the presentation of events occurring around the world. With nearly every mobile phone equipped with a camera or video device, and the ability to send images through both the mobile networks and Internet, reality can once again be reality.

Government actions, law enforcement actions, and individual actions are now more likely to be recorded than not – ensuring that at a raw level, fact will become available to the world without government or media corruption of the source.

While the mainstream news media may still add “expert” commentary and attempt to interpret events, those events can no longer be controlled or hidden from the global community. There are exceptions, such as embedding journalists within military operations. The government will still control what the public views or learns from those journalists, and propaganda will still be part of our lives. Mainstream media will still try to interpret events in a manner supporting their political views (if in doubt, watch the US stations Fox, MSNBC, CNN, and BBC America for a variety of interpretations of a single event).

But that line of deception, or use of propaganda, becomes thinner every day as the diffusion of recording devices and communications continues to become available to nearly every person on the planet.

“We are getting Twitter reports and photos from the Big Island…”

With residents of the Big Island scattered along the shores of Hawaii, and nearly 100% of them with a mobile communications device, people on the island were kept up to date by the second of tsunami activity hitting the island. Emergency services broadcast information upon receipt of updates, and if there was ever a “dry run” for emergency communications, the people of Hawaii showed the world how it should be done.

As Governor Lingle stated in a pre-event news conference (broadcast to KHON studios via Skype), “the eyes of the world are now on Hawaii.” Gov. Lingle, and the people of Hawaii should be proud of the way they set a new standard for integrating citizen journalism, broadcast journalism, and emergency services into a single, integrated community.

CNN, Fox, and MSNBC had one theme in common throughout the rapidly unfolding Chile earthquake events, and preparations for a tsunami event around the Pacific – “send us your images, reports, and video, but do not put yourself in danger.”

Mainstream media gets it. They may not like it much, but they get it. iReports, real-time Skype and Twitter reports, SMS messages, and mobile imaging have given us the potential of having around 4 billion citizen journalists available to produce news content. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC are more than welcome to collate and interpret those events, but now we have a choice of making our own interpretations, listening to the mainstream media’s interpretations, or listening to the government’s interpretation of local or global events.

Managing Emergency Communications – A Tutorial with Marc Ladin

The Station Fire ripped through communities along the northern rim of Los Angeles in August and September, consuming an area more than 160,000 Emergency Notificationacres. Evacuations came with little or no warning, homes and buildings lost, and the entire ordeal put a tremendous strain on utilities and resources. Including water.

When the city of Glendale needed to quickly alert residents to lower their water and power use to enable fire fighters to gain access to critical resources, they turned to a local company, Everbridge, to reach citizens with real-time notifications alerting them to the emergency.

On Thursday night Marc Ladin, VP of Global Marketing at Everbridge, walked CTC members though an introduction to emergency and incident communications management.

The Need for Emergency Management

Communications technology has made incredible leaps in utility, applications, ands capacity over the past few years. We can reach nearly any point or person in the world through telephone, mobile phones, Internet email, Twitter, Blackberry messaging, radio, television – the list is becoming endless.

Regardless of the technologies, natural and man-made disasters and problems remain a part of our lives, and will always be part of our lives. Our businesses, governments, and even survival, depends on how we prepare for disaster, and are able to respond to events that touch our lives. Good events and bad.

Marc Ladin makes a living solving the problem of communicating during emergencies and events. The residents of Glendale, like most communities in the United States, offers residents the option of registering their preferred communications devices with the city.

This gives the city an immediate channel to reach and inform residents in the event of disasters and other incidents of interest or impact to the city and residents.

In the case of the Station Fire, Glendale was able to immediately reach enough residents, and the city was able to lower residential utility draw to the level fire fighters had adequate water resources to protect the community.

The same model applies across the spectrum of emergency notification.

The Enterprise Business Continuity Plan

Nobody wants to think of a disaster that will hurt people, or isolate them from their family or organizations. However, it is also clear that any organization needs to have a business continuity plan in place, and a disaster response plan in place to allow the organization to quickly respond to, and manage, any event that will potentially damage the organization’s ability to function.

Consider this scenario. A large multi-national chemical products company. Highly visible in the world business community, and customers located around the world.

The worst case scenario happens. At the HQ site an explosion occurs in the manufacturing plant, killing several person in senior leadership roles, and requiring a massive response by emergency services and evacuation in the surrounding community.

Who do we need to notify to respond to the emergency, and who needs to know about the problem?

  • First responders – fire fighters, HAZMAT teams, ambulances, local hospitals, police
  • Local Community – residents, media (radio and television)
  • Company leadership – management, public affairs, operations
  • National and global media

How do you get the message – the real message – out to those people?

How do we determine if somebody is trapped in the disaster area, and needs help?

The process is getting easier. Every person, machine, and device connected to the Internet or other global communications service can be part of the event notification process.

Registering Your Communications Device for Notification

A company such as Everbridge offers as utility for managing emergency and event notifications. The utility (Everbridge) operates as a SaaS (Software as a Service) application, physically separated from the users. The SaaS application resides on several geographically diverse data centers, with multiple communication providers providing the conduit for global device notification access.

An organization will compile a table of their users and devices, with an individual having the ability to register all their available communications devices (mobile phones, email, Twitter accounts, etc), including a preference on notification priority (i.e., mobile phone message first, email second, home phone third…).

The organization then has the ability to sort members into different categories of notification. An example of how an organization might be sorted is:

  • C-level management notifications
  • Persons notified during emergencies
  • Geography (everybody in the Long Beach office, everybody in the Atlanta office, everybody in Japan, etc)
  • Function (operations, engineering, marketing and sales)
  • Local area first responders
  • And any other desired sort

Of course a single entry is easily tagged for multiple notification categories.

How to Make a Notification

In a traditional environment company leadership wants to make a notification. They may have their secretary make phone calls, might call an operations center and open a notification checklist, or other time-tested process.

The modern notification system can use a wider variety of methods for generating a notification:

  • A human being opens a web page and types in a notification message for distribution
  • A human being prepares an email or SMS message, and sends it to an address that spawns the desired notification tree
  • A machine experiences a condition that requires a human response
    • Fire alarm
    • Equipment failure
    • Security break-in or event
    • Etc

Once the message is triggered, and the notifications made, then you need to make a decision on whether or not the notified persons need to acknowledge or respond to the notification. Modern systems also manage and automate the acknowledgement process by logging replies to the notification message, allowing the alert initiator to determine if everybody has received the message.

This is important if you are managing a disaster, and need to determine if somebody could potentially be hurt or in danger, or if you need to escalate a decision situation to the next person in a business continuity plan.

With GPS capability, it is now even possible to determine the exact location of a desired device, further helping locate persons in a disaster. Consider a heart patient with an active monitoring device – that device can be registered in a hospital, first-responder, family, and neighbor notification matrix. This will increase the probability that person will survive in the event of health problems.

Other Creative Ways to Use a Notification System

Of course the same system that handles emergencies can also handle positive messages. The marketing group can use the same notification system for press releases, management can deliver positive company results to employees – basically once the person and device/s are registered in a data base, the entry can be used for whatever desired.

Marc Ladin presented a great vision. His company is putting the vision into reality, and has a lot of exciting features available today, and in the mill for tomorrow.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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