Social Media as a Tool for Public Safety and Emergency Response

Social Media as a Tool for Public Safety and Emergency ResponseIn a world dominated by social media, the failure to send or receive a message instantaneously can seem like a matter of life or death. But when faced with an actual disaster or crisis, reaching your target audience at a moment’s notice can significantly impact your ability to save lives.

Social Media and Emergency Management

Social media has made the exchange of information faster than ever, changing how we consume news, connect with one another, and receive notifications about significant or catastrophic events. It has also become a valuable tool for emergency managers and first responders who need to clearly and effectively communicate with the public before, during, and after emergencies. Through social media, public safety and emergency management entities can quickly reach their constituents to share critical emergency notifications, provide real-time updates on crises, and share life-saving information to disaster survivors—all of which are essential in an emergency situation. Social networks have also created new means of collaboration and crowdsourcing of data needed to enhance response initiatives and amplify messaging.

Information is critical in an emergency response. Having the right information and sharing it with the public is essential to ensure individuals are informed and take the proper precautions to stay safe. The failure to do so can result in a lack of preparedness, confusion, and ultimately lives lost. Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs) play a critical role in ensuring emergency managers, first responders, and the public have the information they need to respond to crises by supporting crowdsourcing initiatives through social networks.


VOSTs are composed of volunteers who work digitally to support emergency operations, especially during major incidents. VOST personnel use social media platforms to monitor online information, amplify messaging, verify and correct misinformation, collect data, and even manage social accounts to communicate with the public during a crisis. With so much information being sent and distributed through social media, especially during crises, VOSTs help prevent misinformation from spreading across multiple channels and ensure trusted information communicated from government or emergency management officials is amplified so individuals can stay informed and act accordingly.  VOST teams exist internationally as well as throughout the U.S., including in Florida, Hawaii, and New York.

In addition to amplifying and overseeing information on social channels, VOSTs also play an important role in assisting rescue missions to identify persons in need or those who are missing.  VOST personnel communicate directly with emergency operation teams to receive and share real-time updates on response initiatives online with disaster survivors and their families. They can also observe online discussion across channels to pinpoint missing individuals or individuals in need of aid. This information is valuable to emergency personnel, especially those on the ground, allowing them to adjust their response missions and save lives.

VOSTs demonstrate the unique ways social media can be used as a tool in the field of emergency management to communicate and improve response capabilities. If used properly, social media channels can enhance public safety and provide communications messaging that saves lives.