In honor of the five year VOST anniversary today, here’s a piece that I wrote about the VOST initiative for the June, 2015 IAEM Bulletin. (with a few slight edits because I just couldn’t help it.) Enjoy!
I’m proud to be a “VOSTie,” a practitioner of the concept known as “Virtual Operations Support Teams” (VOST). We’ve grown the VOST Initiative from a group of emergency management professionals and enthusiastic, talented social media volunteers. This movement grew via social media, and has evolved as a method for working together using free, multi-platform, collaborative tools that allow us to be flexible, resilient and supportive of each others’ efforts when extra help is needed. VOST Teams have begun forming up to support many types of emergencies and disasters, as well as public safety related organizations of all types. The concept started in the United States, but it is growing internationally as well, with teams in Canada, New Zealand, France, United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Panama, and more.
During a disaster or incident, the public, the media, local goverment, law enforcement, public safety agencies and disaster organizations are all posting, commenting, asking questions and sharing information, images and video in real time. The amount of information flowing on social media and the internet during a disaster or incident can quickly become overwhelming. Emergency managers need to know what’s being shared on social media to gain real-time situational awareness, to respond to rumors, misinformation or old information, and to support the good information that’s being shared. A VOST can help to find useful info, sort and organize it, providing decision support, sentiment analysis, monitoring, reporting, as well as messaging, if desired.
A VOST is a group of people that your agency or organization puts together ahead of time to help listen and report to you, the VOST agency liaison. As the agency liaison, you set up a team to support your agency or organization. You decide what the mission is. In a typical activation, the team listens to what’s being said on social media platforms and apps, stakeholder accounts, news article comments, and anywhere they can find the public talking about what’s happening in relation to our assigned mission, and reports to the agency it’s supporting. Once you’ve built a team of trusted agents, they can do much more than listening and reporting. A well-trained VOST can also answer repetitive questions that are asked on social media, direct people to resources, correct known bad information, monitor your agency social media accounts, respond to comments or questions, and report to you when a question or comment needs to be addressed by the agency.
Emergency managers should build a VOST Team ahead of their need for it. You need to recruit volunteers, train your team, determine the skill level and strengths of your team members, and build relationships with other VOST teams for surge support on large activations. Many experienced VOSTies are happy to join new teams to help with your VOST training and activations and to share VOST methods, skills and knowledge in order to help build the overall VOST movement. Creating these ties to other teams for mutual aid is one of the most important aspects of the VOST concept.
Forming a new VOST organization is very similar to forming any organization; you need to find people who are interested and enthusiastic. One of the biggest differences between forming a VOST virtual team and another organization is that you want to have a combination of both local and non-local team members. Local members will have geographical and cultural knowledge of your area of operations, and non-local members might be able to work shifts that local members will not be able to cover and provide surge support as needed.
Basic VOST roles and structure:
VOST EM liaison or agency liaison: person in the agency or organization that the VOST is being created to support. (Often a PIO, but not always.)
VOST team lead: works with VOST agency liaison to create mission and objectives for a team; has a thorough knowledge of social media platforms, VOST methods and tools, and how social media is used by the public in disasters, and communicates directly with the VOST agency liaison.
VOST team members: Members may have varying skill levels, from advanced users capable of identifying platforms to be monitored, set up advanced search tools or set up incident-specific social media accounts as needed, to VOST beginners who can run pre-set searches and reports. VOST team members communicate with fellow team members and the VOST team lead.
A VOST can be set up to support any type of incident, event or disaster; it can have a very narrowly focused mission or can take on more complex tasks, depending on how many people you have to help and the skills of your VOST team members. A VOST can be set up and operated using volunteers, using in-house staff, or using a combination of both. The most important thing is to set up ahead of time so that you have an established, trusted relationship with your team. If you have specific needs, such as image curation, mapping or crowdsourcing support, you’ll need to look for VOST team members with those skills – don’t assume that every team member has those skills.
Scope of VOST Duties
It’s also possible for a VOST to not only listen and report what’s happening in a disaster, but also to set up and be ready to amplify your messaging. They can do this with your existing social media accounts or with incident-specific accounts that are set up as needed. For instance, wildfires often occur in rural areas, and may cross boundary lines. Setting up incident-specific accounts allows day-to-day operations to continue on local accounts.
As an emergency manager, once you determine that there’s a need to activate your VOST, you contact the VOST team lead to activate the team. Most teams are then activated via group text. Sometimes, if there’s some prior warning that an activation will occur, the team is notified in the team Skype room or via email.
Once the team is activated, they assemble in the VOST Team Skype room and discuss the mission and its expected duration. Then a new incident-specific Skype room is set up, and the activation moves to the incident-specific activation room. The team lead sets up a shared VOST “workbook” (a Google collaborative spreadsheet), and after team members add their availability and contact information, they get to work.
The team typically starts by locating all relevant verified local accounts that will be sharing relevant information, then saving links to all of these accounts to the “Key Websites and Resources” tab in the workbook. Members are assigned to monitor these accounts. Other team members start running searches on major platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others as needed. VOSTies run keyword searches, geosearches and hashtag searches to find information, and begin sorting it according to the mission.
The VOST continues to search all major social media platforms for relevant accounts, posts on those accounts, and comments on the posts. We look for local news sites, including traditional media such as newspapers, television and radio stations with websites, and search for relevant posts, articles and comments from the public on those articles. We try to identify hashtags and keep track of them as they change on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We listen on social media for individual needs and for trends in needs. We listen for both the good and bad information being shared by the public and all other agencies and organizations who are working the disaster, and we report this as needed to the agency we’re supporting. Sensitive or urgent matters are escalated to the agency liaison immediately, and matters that are less urgent but important are communicated when the agency liaison asks, or in a regular report once a reporting schedule is established. The VOST EM/agency liaison and team lead adjust the VOST mission as needed throughout the activation. The tools used and the platforms we search change constantly, but basically a VOST listens on social media to see what the needs, concerns, questions and issues are, and gets that info to people who can help.
Once you build a VOST and get comfortable with the team finding and sharing useful information with your agency or organization, you also may wish to have them support your messaging or the amplification of messages. You can decide if that’s needed once you have the team supporting you with listening and reporting. Uniform Training in Tools
One thing that will help keep the VOST concept strong and growing is uniform training in the use of the same basic VOST tools. Some of the tools, such as the Skype chat room and shared VOST Workbook (a shared Google spreadsheet), help make us more resilient if we train all members to use the same basic resources. If we adhere to this, we can bring people in very rapidly from other teams to support each others’ efforts. If we keep training all VOSTs to use the same basic tools, we’ll always be able to draw from the larger VOST community for surge support as needed. This ability for teams to easily provide mutual aid and surge support when more help is needed is a very powerful part of the VOST concept.
The platforms that we search on social media are constantly changing. New ones come and go, so it’s important for us to share that as we identify new platforms. That’s why an important part of the VOST concept is staying involved with the overall VOST community, sharing as we learn which platforms are being used currently, identifying new and upcoming platforms that get used by different communities, and sharing that information with others. We have ongoing VOST conversations on the #VOST and #SMEM hashtags on Twitter and in the “All Things VOS” Skype room. We also have a monthly VOST leadership coalition call that all teams are welcome to participate in.
A new Virtual Emergency Management Association is forming to address the issues and needs of virtual team members. We’re always happy to add new people to the VOST Skype room or answer questions asked on the #VOST hashtag.
During the past five years, VOSTs have been activated for earthquakes, wildfires, floods, storms, public health emergencies, tornadoes, hurricanes, and more. Since VOST uses ICS, the concept scales well for incidents of all sizes, from minor to catastrophic. Many VOSTies are on multiple VOST teams, and we often support each others’ team activations when requested. This is a way to help others and to build relationships with other teams, so that we can feel comfortable calling on them for surge support when needed. This also helps us all to stay current with the constantly changing landscape of social media platforms and apps. There’s no better way to train for VOST work than to help someone else on a real, live VOST activation.
Set up your VOST team now so that it’s ready when you need it. Feel free to reach out to VOSTies – especially on Twitter! You’ll see us talking on the #VOST twitter hashtag, and we love to share information and learn from each other. We’re all very enthusiatic to help grow the concept, so that we can call on each other for support when we need help from others. Join us!
Disclaimer: I’m just one VOSTie, and I’m sure opinions will vary regarding VOST structure and missions. I didn’t really speak to the overall vision that we have for VOST, since my vision might be different from that of others. I can say, though, that we all want to help those affected by disasters and emergencies, and we want to help emergency managers to quickly acquire the information they need to help their communities. Thanks to all my fellow VOSTies who I’ve learned with and from. Much of this article is built from my work with these great people. And feel free to contact me as well, I’m always happy to help.
NOTE: The recently formed Virtual Emergency Management Association is taking the lead in moving the VOST initiative forward, working on VOST presentations, training modules as well as beginning work on criteria for credentialing and resource typing. I’m on the board of this organization, and I’m so proud to get to get to work with this great group of folks. If you want to help or to learn more about the VOST concept or Virtual EMA, please contact us through the Virtual EMA site (link above) or via the Virtual EMA social media accounts to learn more and get involved.
Thanks to Sara Miller (@scba) who helped edit and made helpful suggestions to the original version of this article for IAEM.
And thanks to my many many VOST friends and colleagues who make VOST possible and so helpful when it is really needed.