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Archive for Thursday, December 16, 2010

Colorado first responders hold conference about using Twitter, Facebook to spread information during emergencies

December 16, 2010

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— While fire crews rolled out in September on what became the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, emergency responders in Boulder were using social networking to communicate with the public.

Once considered the darling of geeks to share what they had for breakfast, the social networks Twitter and Facebook were used by Boulder County emergency management officials to blast out information about road closures, evacuated areas, donations or even where displaced residents could find shelter during the fire that destroyed 166 homes and caused $217 million in damage.

And now Colorado officials are sharing what they learned with other agencies across Colorado at a conference sponsored by the Denver Urban Area Security Initiative, where the purpose was to bring Israelis to town to share their knowledge in reacting to terrorist attacks.

“It’s not just people talking about what they had for breakfast anymore,” said Brandon Williams, the information officer for the Colorado Division of Emergency Management. “It’s real and it’s very powerful.”

Among the lessons learned by Williams, who coordinated the social network effort during the fire that started on Labor Day: Establish an official “hashtag,” or a searchable keyword that can be found by tweeters. And keep the tweets to 120 characters, 20 characters short of the 140 character limit on Twitter to allow people to retweet the message.

“That’s what made those messages to be carried far and wide,” Williams told a group of law enforcement, businesses and emergency responders. “They are your force multipliers.”

A call center set up to handle questions from the center handled up to 600 calls per hour, said Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. A tweet almost instantly reach about 700 people who follow Boulder emergency services, and countless others who receive retweets from their friends. Chard said there was a marked drop in calls once officials began tweeting.

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