Harris Co. social media exercise helps prepare responders for disaster

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The Harris County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) today launched a training program to improve how it disseminates and provides information to the public during disasters.

In a first-of-a-kind exercise for southeast Texas, OEM is partnering with 14 other county departments, along with various state and federal agencies, to test how it responds to disasters on social media. The goal is to provide faster, real-time information to the public.

"We have to go where the people are," said Ed Emmet, County Judge and director of OEM. "Media is being re-defined and how people get their information is being re-defined. So it's important that everyone knows how social media works so that we can get information out to residents."

It's an exercise that requires coordination and collaboration and ongoing training amongst various agencies. While OEM and other agencies already have a social media presence, OEM admits that they need to be more engaged.

"A lot of what we need to get out to the public in a flood event, like the one we saw recently, is immediate. The old system of using press releases is good, but not as quick as we need to it," said Kim Jackson, a spokesperson for the Harris County Flood Control District.

Jackson explained that, for example, the Harris County flood control district would coordinate their social media messaging with the Office of Emergency Management to warn residents living near rising water. With both agencies on message, more people, specifically more Twitter and Facebook followers, can be reached in real time.

The training comes at a critical time. Hurricane season is already upon us. Moreover, local emergency management offices have been criticized for not being better prepared during the flooding that occurred over the Memorial Day weekend.

"With everyone on the same page, we're going to better respond to our citizens in a more timely manner. We've already been doing that, but we're going to do it better," said Judge Emmet.
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