The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) established the Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG) in 2010 to address the challenges of implementing social media technologies. VSMWG provides recommendations to the emergency preparedness and response community on the use of social media technologies before, during and after natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters. After the DHS Social Media Improvement Act of 2015 was passed, the VSMWG was re-named the Social Media for Emergency Services and Disaster Management Advisory Committee (SMESDMAC) and continues to offer guidance and best practices to first responders.
This new report follows the SMESDMAC’s previous publication, From Concept to Reality: Operationalizing Social Media for Preparedness, Response and Recovery, which introduced and discussed how and why social media should be operationalized by public safety. To fully institutionalize social media into all aspects of an agency’s emergency preparedness, response and recovery operations, social media should also be included in the agency’s exercises. Using social media in exercises helps prepare first responders for responding to real-life incidents where the public increasingly uses social media to share and gather information. Exercises provide an opportunity for public safety agencies to integrate unconventional information channels into an operational environment without burdening time-crunched responders.
The purpose of Best Practices for Incorporating Social Media into Exercises is to:
- Discuss best practices for consideration when integrating social media into exercises, including objectives for doing so (e.g., using social media for communications or leveraging information from social media to support operational decision-making);
- Discuss social media’s role in exercise design;
- Identify social media exercise planning elements in the homeland security exercise and evaluation program practices;
- Address the need for the integration of social media into all aspects of preparedness, response and recovery, including exercises and training to ensure operational implementation and longevity; and
- Discuss challenges associated with integrating social media into exercises, including policy, technical and procedural challenges.
Public safety agencies should initially decide on objectives for integrating social media into their exercises, which will help inform the rest of the exercise process. Agencies may choose to exercise skills such as information dissemination before moving to more advanced skills such as operationalizing social media by providing first responders additional relevant information for use in decision-making. When planning an exercise that incorporates social media, agencies will develop social media content, determine how they will evaluate the exercise results, whether the exercise will occur in an open environment (e.g., leveraging social media platforms in real-time) or closed environment (e.g., using proprietary tools), and decide how to mitigate confusion in the event of an accidental leak to real-world social media. The report offers guidance, evaluation forms, examples and links on how agencies can accomplish these tasks.
The report also describes challenges associated with integrating social media into exercises and offers ideas on how to resolve those challenges. As with past reports written by the SMESDMAC, there is a section on suggested areas of research for academia to support future exercises as well as case studies. For public safety agencies looking for examples of exercises incorporated social media, the case studies describe exercises conducted at multiple levels of government and how those agencies planned for and used social media as part of the exercise.
Ultimately, incorporating social media into exercises allows agencies and organizations the opportunity to “train like you fight,” testing technologies, policies and procedures that can be used in a real-life incident.
For additional information on the SMESDMAC and other SMESDMAC reports, please visit the SMESDMAC program page.