The Complete Toolkit: Social Media’s Critical Role in an Emergency Mass Notification System

Social media of all types have joined email, telephony and instant messaging as main stream communication tools that are used daily in many individual’s lives. The Pew Research Center estimates that 68% (216.9 million individuals) of US citizens have a Facebook profile, and 21% (66.9 million individuals) use Twitter. These tools have become a key part of the communication landscape and need to be a consideration in any emergency communication solution.

#1 – Social media has evolved into a viable communication tool

Throughout the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, the primary source of information for the public was television. A case study on the attacks showed, “more than half of Americans learned about the terrorist attacks from television, and only 1% from the Internet”2

Fast forward to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – “mainstream media sites dominated with 73 percent (73%)”2 of online traffic directed at major news organizations for information and disaster relief donations.2 More recently, during the emergency response to the 2015 San Bernardino attack, online and social media platforms were successfully utilized by local police and FBI members to create a new manner of public information sharing.  Safety Response Reports after the event identified Twitter as a critical component for media operations and credited the team’s utilization of the platform.3

People’s automatic reaction of turning to social media and the Internet to gather information continues to grow and today’s mass notification systems must provide tools for managing these critical touch points.

“The convergence of social networks and mobile has thrown the old response playbook out the window,” Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, told the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications. “Meaning, it’s time to reevaluate our emergency plans and include these advancements in technology into a new version.”

#2 Social media needs administration

Social media can be a valuable tool for sharing emergency alerts and information when it is utilized, monitored, and managed properly. As with all new technologies, there are good and bad ways to use them and it is important to understand at least the basics of how various tools work. If you’re interested in a good social media primer, you can find one here.

Researchers like Dr. Jeannette Sutton Ph.D. have dedicated their lives to studying events and the digital responses that follow. Dr. Sutton, a disaster sociologist with expertise on the use of social media in crisis and disasters, has studied the use of social media in events such as 9/11 and the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings in order to understand both the best and worst practices employed. For example, during these incidents, her team’s research found that the simple practice of using a hashtag on Twitter was used inconsistently, making it very difficult to track public updates and information sharing.4

In addition to ensure best practices for each social media channel are followed, these tools require constant monitoring and attention in order to be effective and more importantly, controlled. Unfortunately, we live in the era where “fake news” and insidious false information spreads rapidly, making the task of delivering the truth to the public even more challenging.

For example, August 2016 at LAX airport in Los Angeles, false reports of a shooter caused panicked evacuations and delays across the airport.5 These reports were unfounded, set off by an individual or group of people simply hearing a loud noise and spread across social media very quickly. Fortunately, LAX promptly noticed the trending social media dialogue and leveraged their recently enhanced public communication system, to issue accurate information to those in the airport and the surrounding five mile radius. 5

#3 Best practices for comprehensive emergency notification and public information plans are critical

The most important thing about an effective mass notification solution is leveraging all of the right communication methods to circulate your message – especially when it is an emergency alert. Sending the right notification over all of the appropriate platforms ensures your message reaches everyone regardless of whether they are using a particular social media platform at any given time, smart phone with text, mobile app, or IPAWS capabilities.

With these inherent challenges in mind and today’s ever evolving social and digital world, here are several best practices you can follow to utilize social media for emergency communications:

  • Incorporate social media strategies into your emergency notification and public information plans for accountability. This includes identifying who is assigned to create, post and update your information, along with the team that will monitor and oversee the channels.
  • Heavily monitor social media traffic. The sharing of your official post(s) may cause more panic or serve as a complaint forum for naysayers. Pay attention to what is being discussed and respond appropriately.
  • Always note the date and time of your original post, as well as in any subsequent updates, to avoid outdated information from spreading after the fact.
  • Do not solely rely on social media. Utilize every mode of communication to reach as many people as you can. Not everyone utilizes social media platforms or has 24×7 access, especially during critical situations.

Using every tool in your communicator’s toolbox is the only truly effective way to ensure you are reaching as many people as possible. Developing a comprehensive emergency alert and notification plan which incorporates a systematic method of disseminating information for any reason, from general guidance to emergency notifications (such as CodeRED), can be very helpful to your community and staff and serve to assist your goal of savings lives and protecting your citizens.


  1. Pew Research Center – Social Media Update 2016.
  2. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology – Social Media Use During Disasters
  3. U.S. Department of Justice – Bringing Calm to Chaos, a critical incident review of the San Bernardino public safety response to the terrorist shooting incident at the Inland Regional Center
  4. Dr. Jeannette Sutton, Ph.D. – Tweeting What Matters: Information, Advisories and Alerts Following the Boston Marathon Events
  5. – False Reports of LAX Shooter Reveals Stronger Emergency Response


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