History of the VOST
Why use Social Media
Social media has become an increasingly important tool for governmental organisations to disseminate information to the public. This is particularly relevant during emergency or major incidents where it can become crucial for people in affected areas to be able to obtain accurate information. During the winter storms of December 2015, Dumfries and Galloway Police Division implemented a Virtual Operations Support Team, known as a VOST, in conjunction with D&G Council.
This approach was central to the emergency response communication plan and was used widely by the public, media and local services. The team’s first priority was to gather, collate and provide real time information to the public about the ongoing weather related disruption. As well as providing live information to the worst affected towns and villages, the team also provided key messages to areas that where yet to be affected. These messages included advice on what course of action and preparations the public should make while answering any questions/queries from the public as required.
What the VOST provides
By using social media in a smarter and better way, the VOST was able to provide the community with information before during and after an emergency. Early posts provided updates on expected weather conditions and general safety advice. As the weather deteriorated, these messages included road closures, sandbag collection points, bus diversions and the preparations those living in flood risk areas should start making. Later, the blog highlighted the need for residents in the worst affected areas to take action and the services available to them.
The system enabled the police to communicate quickly and efficiently with communities affected by the storm, allowing individuals to make informed choices based on detailed and localised information. Much of this localised information was provided by the public to the team via social media. This two way information flow is a key feature of the VOST, with the public providing relevant pictures and videos of the situation as they find it. This in turn helped the incident commanders have better situational awareness, helping identify risk levels and allocate appropriate resources.
The police division identified from research into responses to major emergencies around the world that members of the public use social media to communicate and share information with friends and family, gather timely and relevant information, seek assistance, and provide assistance to others during critical incidents. The VOST was identified as an approach that had worked to good effect in other areas, particularly in the USA, however the local deployment in Dumfries and Galloway was the first deployment of a VOST in Scotland.
Review by HMICS
During 2016, the deployment of the VOST was reviewed by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and found to be “innovative and an effective means of communicating with the public during emergency situations and is an example of effective practice.” The VOST system has also been nominated for a Police Scotland Service Improvement Award and local officers will be attending the awards ceremony on 27th January 2017.
What the future holds
Over the last 12 months, Dumfries and Galloway Police Division and Dumfries and Galloway Council have been working hard to ensure we are able to deploy a VOST during any future major incidents or major emergencies. The VOST now has a new website, Facebook and Twitter accounts and staff training has been undertaken to ensure a team can be deployed at short notice.
Martin Ogilvie, Resilience and Community Safety Manager with Dumfries and Galloway Council said “This system allows everyone involved in managing the information flow in an emergency situation to get the right information and advice out those affected by the emergency in real time. It also allows those being affected by the emergency the ability to send information back to those managing the incident, giving them and actual view of what it is they are dealing with. Training has been undertaken and we are ready to go live when the situation arises.”