In March, the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Management Agency – better known as FEMA – launched an initiative to monitor social media during disasters in an attempt to save more lives and improve rescue efforts. Part of FEMA’s responsibilities during disasters is to provide situational awareness for partners at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels, as well as international partners.

FEMA Watch Centers are key to maintaining situational awareness.

FEMA operates “Watch Centers” to collect information from traditional, publicly-available media such as newspapers, radio, and television. These centers include the National Watch Center, the National Response Coordination Center, ten Regional Watch Capabilities, ten Regional Coordination Centers, and five Mobile Emergency response Support Operations Centers. Each center is staffed 24 hours a day by emergency management professionals. Analysts monitor threats from severe weather to potential terrorist activity, using advanced technology such as geospatial information systems and real-time computer analysis. The mission is straightforward: maintain uninterrupted, 24/7 situational awareness of FEMA’s response capabilities, readiness postures, and all events that may require a coordinated federal disaster response. When an event occurs, the Watch Centers provides timely, accurate, and actionable information to decision-makers, resulting in coordinated situational awareness.

What FEMA’s new social media monitoring means.

Homeland Security has been monitoring social media since 2012, but this new initiative expands that monitoring. Previously, Watch Centers analysts used only official FEMA-branded social media accounts to monitor and engage. Now, analysts will be able to gather information from social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook by following relevant users – emergency managers, emergency management agencies, official government personnel at state, local, tribal, and territorial levels, and known subject matter experts, and monitoring posts during a disaster. Even video and photo sharing sites, blogs, and online communities fall under this new initiative.

Just to be clear: FEMA isn’t monitoring the public or private individuals, and doesn’t intend to; though because they monitor keywords, individual user posts often show up in their searches. They’re also not intending to collect personal information such as individuals’ names and locations, but due to the nature of emergencies and the voluntary unrestricted nature of social media, it is possible that such collection will occur. In those situations, any personal information will be shared only in life and death situations, and only with first responders.

Personal information is always a sensitive subject, and FEMA is taking the issue of privacy very seriously. They conducted and released a comprehensive Privacy Impact Assessment outlining just what keywords they’re monitoring and on what social media (read the full report here). Though the list isn’t exhaustive, you’ll recognize some of the heavy hitters: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Huffington Post. You’ll also see some you may not be familiar with, such as Magma, Stormpulse, and Picfog. The list of social media sites FEMA monitors includes everything from maps to search tools to blogs.

As for the keywords, it’s some you’d expect and plenty you wouldn’t, and covers all types of disasters. Whether it’s related to domestic security, health concerns, infrastructure, or weather events, FEMA keeps tabs on relevant information. These keywords are aggregated and shared with internal and external partners as appropriate, all in the hopes of providing the most up-to-date picture of the situation.

Monitoring social media will help in a disaster.

So just how will this work? Say you’re stranded in a collapsed building, or your home has flooded. You tweet your location, and include a couple of hashtags related to the disaster. FEMA’s Watch Centers pick up the tweet. Chances are, your local emergency management agency saw it too. But let’s say three or four or twelve people are tweeting the same thing. How can your local emergency management keep up, when they’ve got everything else to think about? That’s where FEMA’s new initiative comes in. Analysts monitoring social media will pick up the “chatter,” and pass on a consolidated report summarizing the situation and providing local decision-makers, like first responders, with better information on which to act.

FEMA will use the information collected to stay abreast of potential threats to life and property. Critical, time-sensitive information may be shared with partners to assist with decision-making and responding to threats. This real-time information collection – while it may be challenging to sift through –will quickly provide critical situational awareness to responders, improving their ability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.