Social Media Lessons from the Indian Gulch Fire

Mayor Jacob Smith of Golden, Colorado, has posted an excellent overview of the lessons learned from the Indian Gulch Fire that began on March 20th. Specifically, he speaks to the communication lessons having to do with social media. I watched the news of the Indian Gulch Fire closely because it burned within sight of my office in Golden, Mayor Smith was one of the most important voices hitting the Twitter hashtag search for the fire.

Mayor Smith was one of the (unofficial) point people for the Indian Gulch Fire online (he’s @jacobzsmith on Twitter). Another was Golden City Councilor Bill Fisher (@goldenbilfish). Both utilized Twitter, Facebook, and their personal websites to communicate to the citizens of Golden.

Mayor Smith speaks directly to the intricacies of working with professional emergency managers (and their public information officers) during a crisis situation like the Indian Gulch Fire [original author’s emphasis]:

Bill and I occupied an interesting space. We weren’t official voices of the City of Golden, but we had enough credibility that our information was taken seriously. We were both diligent about checking our facts before hitting ‘send,’ and we always tried to make sure the info we posted was accurate. Nonetheless, for any future emergencies we’ll need to think about how to keep the accuracy level high without slowing things down. Ironically enough, the only error I’m aware of was the result of an error on one of the official news releases.

An interesting point Mayor Smith makes is that emergency response personnel (from the City of Golden, the Jefferson County, and the Federal government) were able to concentrate on the fire, enabling he and Councilor Fisher to concentrate on communicating with their communities:

This enabled us to communicate with staff about issues that needed more attention or about information gaps that might not have been as important from the “protect people and homes” perspective but helped reduce the uncertainty among residents.

More important for followers of social media, Mayor Smith identifies that Twitter and Facebook were the fastest methods to get information out quickly, while email newsletters allowed him to communicate with residents who weren’t on social media.

His conclusion:

Communicating across such a wide range of tools required a great deal more effort than simply relying on the traditional news release-driven approaches, but my sense is that the effort was worthwhile.

My conclusion? It is pretty clear that governments need to make use of social media (and new technologies) to enable quick information exchange with citizens. I have long been a fan of using social media in emergency situations as an alternative form of communication: just last fall, the City of Boulder’s reverse 911 system failed to get out a timely evacuation order during a wildfire. At the very minimum, local governments can post to Twitter and Facebook the same information they are giving out to media. And at the most, governments can inform the media as well as residents.