On 5 and 6 December 2015, Storm Desmond caused considerable disruption and flooding in the region. Key agencies came together in the major emergency bunker situated at the council headquarters to co-ordinate local resources and activity. To support this response, the Police Tactical Commander established a Social Media and Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST). Their role was to provide the public with ‘Live’ time information, provide advice on what course of action and preparations they should make and answer any questions/queries as required.
The 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 Virtual Operations Support Team was identified as an approach that had worked to good effect in other areas, particularly in the USA.
What is a Virtual Operations Support Team and how does it work
The VOST comprised two police officers, overseen by a Police Inspector. One member of the team created a web based ‘blog’ with a ‘Live Incidents’ page as the platform by which the VOST would communicate with the public for the duration of the emergency situation.
One officer carried out updates and engaged with members of the public via Facebook, Twitter, the blog and incidents map using information provided by the other officer from the police command and control system. Information was presented as illustrated below, the ‘Live Incidents’ map included known road closures and key locations such as sandbag collection points and the location of a rest centre. This became the most popular page on the website.
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. The approach was central to the emergency response communication plan and was used widely by the public, media and local services.
The service has the added benefit of reducing call volumes to the police control room from the public asking for information. On the first day, 20,017 users visited the site with up to 2,000 per hour accessing information. During the subsequent Storm Frank, the VOST was used again and had around 600,000 visits over two days, prompting positive comments from users.
HMICS consider this approach to be innovative and an effective means of communicating with the public during emergency situations and is an example of effective practice.
The full HMICS report can be read here.