Emergencies, Watches, Warnings and Your Social Media Responsibility

In emergency management, one of the key challenges is the management of rumors and misinformation before, during and after emergencies.

We’ve experienced this here in tiny little Bridgeton Township before and during flood events – the number of conjectures about flood levels and river bridge closures that turn into “facts” can be astonishing, and the speed at which uninformed opinion turn into perceived fact can be frightful.

With social media acting as a powerful amplifier of both fact and opinion, it is critical to think responsibly about the information you post or re-post online about emergencies or potential emergencies.

We think that it’s an important enough issue that we’re going to share some basic concepts that we are taught in emergency management, concepts that we hope anyone reading this will use.

1. Know the difference between a watch and a warning.

A “watch” means that some kind of weather event could happen, but it does not mean it will happen. Further, a “watch” often spans a very large geographic area, because it is an inherently uncertain forecast.  Don’t freak out about a “watch” – just increase your monitoring of the weather a little bit.

A warning means that some kind of nasty weather even is happening or will happen, somewhere.  Somewhere – not always where you are.  In fact, usually the warning is for a narrow geographic area. What is critical to note here is that a “flood warning” in Bucks County could mean:

  • Small streams & streams overflowing banks in some places. (An “Areal Flood Warning”)
  • A highly localized creek flood will trigger weather radios(most commonly the Neshaminy creek in lower Bucks County)
  • Any river flood from minor (water in the road) to major (water through a village)

So even a flood warning does not mean that there’s a flood that will affect you specifically, it means that some body of water, somewhere, is exceeding some bounds defined as flooding.

2. Use & cite first-hand data and credible reports.

The classic example we like to use to demonstrate how incorrect information is amplified via social media is the online discussion around closing of the Milford-Upper Black Eddy Bridge during flood events. We even posted about this during a past river flood.

If you’re not citing a source with direct, first-hand and credible information about something, you’re citing a rumor.  If enough people cite a rumor, it can drown out the facts.

This can actually be dangerous.  In emergency management, we typically use the same sources of critical information as are available to public.  We get our weather reports from the National Weather Service and we get our flood forecasts from the NOAA Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center and we get bridge closure status from the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. Yes, we have  additional information resources via Bucks County Emergency Management, and we do have direct access to various agencies and services, but these are really more operational in nature (requesting road closure signs, managing communications with utilities and relief organizations, etc. ) For forecasts and infrastructure status, we’re using known and responsible primary sources. You should too.

3. Be a primary information source & part of the solution

One of the best things about being in Emergency Management today is that 57% of people with a mobile phone have a smart phone in their pocket – a device with a camera, a GPS, an internet connection and much more. Here’s an example of how that’s incredibly useful to us.  During a flooding event, we got a report of a breech in the Canal berm “about a mile upriver of where Chef Tell’s used to be”  – but the location was unclear. But we then got a photo from someone with an iPhone and the GPS coordinates of the location were embedded in the picture.  We were able to send that information – with a specific location – to the DCNR and they were able to cordon off the area.  Pictures and text messages to us help tremendously with situation reports and subsequent planning activities.  A direct, first-hand report of the situation where you are is valuable to everyone in emergency management.

4. Remember that TV News always reports on & hopes for the worst-case scenario – not what’s really happening.

When we activate emergency operations, we turn on a television to monitor the news just like you do, and the level of hysteria and manufactured drama is often distressing, because it can and does result in numbness to relevant warnings and watches. But since we’re occasionally in front of the cameras, we also see first-hand just how much television news tends to create a crisis where there is none, or to focus on the most extreme outcome possible, without taking the total situation into account. Some water in River Road somehow becomes a “dramatic flood” by the time the 6 O’clock news gets a hold of it.

With responsible social media by a participating public, we can enjoy a more rational and realistic view of the situation via first-hand facts from people who live here.

With that said, the week ahead looks like it could get “interesting” as the river is already quite high, there are heavy storms possible every day for the next five days, and yes, we should consider the possibility that we might have some river flooding. But nobody actually knows what will happen, and that’s where it stands right now.


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  • m  On 01/07/2013 at 10:39 AM

    Hi Martin (This IS Martin, right?) –

    Thanks for the very helpful and timely email. I have a quick question:

    I went to the NOAAAdvanced Hydrologic Prediction Center over the weekend and I saw it showed a “spike” with the river level going to 39.87 feet on 6/29.

    Now obviously the river wasn’t at 39.878 feet or we’d all be underwater….so just curious, any idea why or how this happens? I’m guessing it’s a surge in volume as water comes down from the areas up north – maybe it’s something else? I have to say, it kind of alarmed me. So if you know why that happened, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.

    Thanks, take care –

    Marc Elliott

    Marc E. Elliott, P.C. The Woolworth Building 233 Broadway – 5th Floor New York, NY 10279 Tel: (212) 766 – 4800 Fax: (212) 406 – 2222 marcelliottpc@aol.com

    • Bridgeton Twp. EMA  On 01/07/2013 at 10:53 AM

      The gauge at Reiglesville has an unfortunate history of reacting badly to very heavy rain events – it “spikes” to absurd levels suddenly when rain is falling hard and when the river is flooding the most it tends to stop reporting entirely. You have to look at the overall trend and realize that a vertical spike is noise in the data. We have no idea what, exactly, is wrong with that gauging station, but we do know that this behavior is consistent across prior heavy rain events.

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