Using Social Media to Communicate Emergency Response


Yesterday Dave Lawry and I presented Using Social Media to Communicate Emergency Response at the 2013 APWA North Amercian Snow Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was fun to give the presentation with Dave because he had some interesting first-hand experiences with implementing social media as a communication tool, particularly during snow operations. His stories came from when he was serving as the Director of Public Works for the city of Elgin in Ill. – some of what they had done has been covered by this blog over the years.

APWA North American Snow Conference Session

About a year or so ago, Dave moved on to take a position with Chastain and Associates. But even though he is no longer with a city, he continues to encourage and help others in local government with figuring out how best to implement the use of social media. Today Dave led a roundtable discussion at the conference to further explore the topic and share thoughts. He sent me an email and said, "The followup round table was well attended today with two from the class yesterday wishing to continue the discussion. My table was full." Even though I would have liked to attend, I had to return to Illinois because of other commitments so missed the discussion, but I am sure based on the questions we got yesterday it was helpful and informative.

Fortunately I'll be able to work again with Dave in the Fall when we discuss Social Media and Public Works at the 12th Annual Public Service Institute on Oct. 8, 2013, in Effingham, Ill. Our presentation will be given as part of IPSI – a leadership and management program held each year for one week in Illinois. The entire program, which focuses primarily on public works, spans a three-year time period. Last year was my first year of training, and I plan to return this year not only to help Dave with the social media session, but also to go for my second year as a student. As anyone who has attended will tell you, the highlights of the program are Lewis and Mary Bender – the two incredible people who are responsible for organizing and hosting the whole event. Lew also teaches most of the sessions. If you haven't gone yet, I highly recommend you consider going. Just meeting Lew and being able to learn from his years of wisdom makes it all worth it by itself. But the added benefit is you'll also be able to network with and learn from other public works people from all over Illinois. It's really one of the few training opportunities we have for learning how to manage in the unique setting in which we all work. And I'm sure as part of our session at IPSI, Dave and I will be able to further explore the use of social media as a communication tool during emergencies. (Note that I am no longer with the employer shown on the schedule – I've since accepted a position with another governmental agency.)

But for now, you can view the presentation we gave yesterday here:



Elgin Rocks on with Beet Juice and Social Media

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the great job the city of Elgin did in communicating information about their snow removal operations. Today I noticed Elgin has also set up a channel on YouTube at One of the videos, shown below, is particularly interesting to those of us involved in public works because it talks about how the city uses beet juice for snow and ice control operations. And for those of us using social media, Elgin’s video also provides another great example of how to effectively reach out to the public with new media. Rock on Elgin – we’ll be watching you!


Communicating a Snow Event

Most cities have formal procedures for handling winter storms including a public communications plan to issue press releases and answer phone calls throughout the event. But during the recent winter storm that swept across the U.S., Sean Stegall, city manager for the city of Elgin in Illinois, didn’t quite follow that traditional plan. Instead, from the beginning of the storm, he regularly posted on the city’s Facebook and Twitter accounts about 95 messages about the city’s winter operations. So based on his outstanding example, I have summarized a new plan for communicating to the public during a winter storm. And I would encourage anyone involved in snow and ice control to read through Elgin’s actual Facebook site – it’s well worth the click.

1. Publish the local weather alert and let people know where to get more information. This information should be issued in a press release, posted on the city’s website, and sent out through the city’s social media accounts, automated call services, and e-mail blasts.

Here is Elgin’s post on Facebook:
“The National Weather Service has issued a Blizzard Watch that will remain in effect for the City of Elgin from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday afternoon. Questions or concerns regarding snow and ice control during the event can be directed to the Public Works Department through the city’s 24 hour Snow Command Center by calling 847-931-5977 or by emailing the Snow Command Center at”

2. As more information is received, follow up through the same channels letting people know about special rules in effect  and how services will be impacted.

In Elgin, this included information about their snow plan, trash pickup, parking bans, emergency snow route activation, towing plans, road closures, material to be used for snow and ice control, regular city service closings, locations of warming shelters, reassurance of availability of emergency services, where to access regular updates, and contact information to report concerns over snow and ice control operations.

3. Once the storm hits, post information on social media channels about the snow and ice control operations and give people an idea about how often updates will be provided.

Facebook Post from Sean Stegall, City Manager, City of Elgin, ILStegall began his initial post on Twitter/Facebook by identifying himself and letting people know he would regularly update them throughout the night. The Facebook post ended up with 43 likes and 18 comments, most of which were positive and encouraging. Stegall participated in the dialogue by sharing some information about their operations:

“Did you know? According to our mechanics we experience significantly less equipment breakdowns the more snow we have. Why? Because the drivers push so much snow that the plows experience less fatigue, vibrations and run into fewer curbs as they stay in the center lane.” – Sean Stegall

4. Continue regular updates throughout the storm, and include information about equipment, schedules, staffing, status of services such as power, traffic conditions and road closures, weather conditions, emergency service response, and other relevant issues.

Stegall’s posts included photos of staff, equipment, road conditions, emergency conditions, all helping to illustrate and explain the event. The city even had a car fire incident and water main break during the storm.

5. Post snow plow location data if available.

A few times throughout the event, Stegall posted screenshots of the city’s AVL system. This is a GPS enabled method of tracking vehicles allowing people to see where plows are throughout the city.

6. Inform citizens if operations are suspended and let them know when they resume.Post from city of Elgin resident on Facebook

At one point during the storm, many agencies, including Elgin, made the decision to pull plows off the streets due to limited visibility. A suspension of operations is important to convey to citizens who might otherwise assume the city is still in snow removal mode. Below is how Elgin handled this announcement on Facebook. The post was followed with positive comments, encouragement, and understanding.

“City Manager Stegall here: We are pulling some snow plows off the road now. It is simply too dangerous. They cannot see due to white out conditions.”

7. Inform citizens of problems and property damage

Unfortunately, mailboxes are a regular casualty in snow removal operations. And in a storm like this, there’s bound to be more than the average number damaged. If an agency is aware of problems caused by their operations, posting this and then following up with information for resolution of the issue is important. Stegall, who was out riding in the plows throughout the storm, witnessed this himself and was up front about sharing the information with residents:

“City Manager Stegall here: I estimate that we have destroyed at least 50 mailboxes. You have my apologies if we did and you will also be reimbursed. The drivers hate it when this happens. They take great pride in their accuracy.”

8. Let residents know as operations near completion. Leave them with contact information and one last update on the status of operations.

Finally on the second day of snow-fighting operations, Stegall signed off with this final post:

“City Manager Stegall here: This will be my last post for awhile. At this point, the operations are humming. Please stay in touch via snow command (847) 931-5977. Thank you for all your support! Sean”