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VOST: Virtual Operations Support Team

Certificate received for participating in the #ORfireInfo VOST/VIOS instance

Certificate of appreciation for work on the #ORfireInfo VOST/VIOS instance, August and September, 2011

I’m fortunate to be working with a group of #SMEM*  friends who like to help each other during disasters. We train on real disasters as well as live non-disaster events such as conferences and fast-moving popular events.  By doing so we can test new social media tools and techniques. We do this to learn for our own varied emergency needs, and to share what we learn with others in order to contribute to the development of social media disaster operations in all phases of disasters. We call ourselves the “Virtual Operations Support Team”, or VOST for those who prefer acronyms.**

We are a diverse mix of professional emergency managers and disaster volunteers of varying skill levels with one major thing in common: an enthusiasm for learning how to use social media in disasters, and for developing ways to operate that will make things easier for ourselves and for others in future disasters. We like to share what we learn.

Here’s a quick definition of the VOST concept:

Virtual Operations Support (VOS) as applied to emergency management and disaster recovery is an effort to make use of new communication technologies and social media tools so that a team of trusted agents can lend support via the internet to those on-site who may otherwise be overwhelmed by the volume of data generated during a disaster.

VOS Teams (VOST) are activated to perform specific functions in support of affected organizations & jurisdictions. Each VOST has a Team Leader that reports directly to the affected organization/jursidiction.

As additional VOSTs are established, a VOS Group (VOSG) may be established to coordinate the work of the VOSTs to maintain an effective span of control. The VOSG has a Group Supervisor that reports to the affected organization/jurisdiction. The VOST Leaders report to the Group Supervisor.

VOST History

While many of us already knew each other and/or had worked other disasters together, we were first assembled  as a group by Jeff Phillips (@losranchosEM 0r @_JSPhillips) as a team of “trusted agents” in March of 2011. The idea is that in a disaster, anyone trying to monitor and respond using social media will be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of data that needs to be examined and sorted into useful information, as well as the possibility that in a catastrophic disaster, it may be necessary for a predetermined, trusted person or group to search, proritize and forward crisis data from outside of the disaster location if the internet is not functioning or bandwidth is limited, or again, if the on-site personnel are overwhelmed by the amount of crisis data incoming. Our group meets and chats often on twitter and Skype (now Yammer as well), talk about our favorite tools, apps and to coordinate our efforts.

1. Proof of Concept: SMEMcamp

Our first “proof of concept” effort (from now on I’ll call them instances, as that seems to be what we’re calling the actual emergency efforts now) was set up in March 2011 by Jeff Phillips to support the “#SMEMCamp” panel at the NEMA Annual Conference.  I won’t spend a lot of time discussing this instance, as Jeff did a great explanation of it here. I will say that in my view it was a great success in demonstrating that a group of volunteers well-versed in SMEM can be of great asistance to each other if they coordinate their efforts, and plan in advance to do so.

2. 140 Conference Northwest

Our next effort was in support of the 140 Conference Northwest, aka #140confNW, which was held in May in Vancouver, Washington. We were led in this instance by Cheryl Bledsoe (@CherylBle) of Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (@CRESA). Those of us VOST members that were on site worked to live-tweet the conference, communicate problems to the internet audience and conference staff,  and help answer questions that were being asked via twitter as best we could. Some of our team were also helping from various locations around the country by monitoring the live stream and live tweet of the event, as well as searching for relative material available on the internet. For example if a conference speaker mentioned a website and one of us on-site tweeted the info without a link, the off-site people helped by looking for the URL and retweeting it, and also tweeted links to other supporting materials.

3. National VOAD Conference (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster)

Our third VOST effort was for the social media panels at the National VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in Kansas City, MO.  Once again the team helped to find and share helpful information using twitter and facebook. Short-Term Disaster Recovery expert Bill Driscoll, Jr. of AllHands Volunteers  – now at NECHAMA joined in the effort, video streaming the morning panel session on U-stream using his iPad. The VOST actually had a chance to help relay info as we were under tornado warning and had to go to the hotel basement to shelter-in place between the morning and afternoon social media panels!   Some VOAD conference attendees that had expressed uncertainty at the morning session saw us using social media to gather data in the basement, and came back to the afternoon session to learn more and get help setting up an account!

4. Hurricane Irene

The fourth major #VOST instance was Hurricane Irene. While VOST has helped informally on smaller earthquakes, floods, wildfires and misc. smaller disasters, this was the first large instance where we operated as a VOST on a large scale disaster, combining efforts with other individuals and organizations who were assisting on the disaster. We helped to populate maps and lists with contacts and social media accounts for Emergency Managers and disaster authorities in areas that were expected to be affected that were in the projected path of the hurricane. We helped to amplify warnings and vital communications. One of our VOST members was in New York in the path of the Hurricane, and we stayed in contact with her and supported her local social media emergency effort.

5. Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon

The fifth VOST instance was the Shadow Lake wildfire in Oregon.**** Jeff Phillips was contacted by Kris Eriksen of the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) who wanted to test the use of social media as part of informational support during the wildfire response. (there is a paper due out on that particular VOST effort soon, and I’ll get a link up for that as soon as it’s available.) VOST member Pascal Schuback set up the ORfireInfo blog,  I set up twitter & gmail accounts, set up a shared dropbox file, a facebook account and a Keepstream social media curation account for saving relevant media articles so that the NIMO staff always knew what the media and citiens on twitter & facebook were saying and asking in regards to the fire, and were able to respond to the public. Jeff Phillips again organized and led the effort, put together the operational ICS204 document in which to seek instructions, log actions in support of the effort, and save useful information and resources where all VOST members could access them. The “#ORfire” Shadow Lake Fire VOST was 19 days of sustained operations working directly with NIMO staff. (I was travelling during this one and was able to test what it would be like to assist in VOST operations while traveling – even posting some fire updates via iPhone while on a crab expedition in Portland, Maine!) This was a long effort and many assisted on it including Jerry KoenigJoel Arnwine, and many others (apologies to all not mentioned – luckily there will be more papers on this VOST instance coming out shortly.)

6. January 2012 Northwest Floods

The sixth VOST instance was in support of the January 2012 northwest floods and severe weather that affected Oregon. (Recovery efforts are ongoing.) In this instance, while we operated and shared crisis data during the flood event, the goal was to support not only response phase efforts, but also to assemble information that would support and streamline both short and long-term recovery phases of the disaster. VOST members located social media and conventional contacts for affected counties, started a map for locating hard hit areas as seen in media accounts, started a Storify media curation/archive, and saved useful info and resources so that Oregon VOAD***** could develop a plan for dealing with a multi-county flood recovery effort. (ongoing at the time of this writing.). This really has turned in to two efforts; one was the initial collection of all data by the VOST – and the subsequent attempt to engage ORVOAD members in the use of this collaborative tool for sharing information amongst themselves. One VOST member (@TheRedElm) even helped me with note-taking during a complex ORVOAD conference call with lots of attendees. We both worked on the notes in a collaborative Google doc.

VOST Going Forward

Each of the above VOST instances really needs to have its own unique story told, but I wanted to get this out there before we get too far away from the early efforts to get the discussion started. People on the #SMEM hashtag have been wondering what #VOST is about, so I hope that this provides a little of the background.

Applying the VOST concept to a disaster of catastrophic scale, I imagine myself (assuming I survive – I assure you that I do my best to prepare!) getting on site to my county EOC after a major earthquake, and I can only process so much crisis data by myself or with a couple of helpers. But I can contact my trusted agents and ask for help in processing this data. (Some of us are discussing MOUs so that the VOST can self-deploy in case contact is not immediately possible.) Perhaps some people are trapped in their home, unable to make a voice call, but they can get a text message out via twitter, or a text message to someone which a friend then posts to facebook.  VOST members can search for these cries for help on twitter, and help to sift that data out and pass it on so that they can be relayed to those who can help.

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FOOTNOTES & LINKS

* We follow each other on twitter and gather on twitter; “#SMEM” is the hashtag for Social Media in Emergency Management – we also hold regular twitter chats on the #SMEMchat hashtag at 12:30EST every Friday – all are welcome!

** you will also occasionally see VOSG being used; this stands for “Virtual Operations Support Group” and is used when an “instance” – or operation – becomes big enough to require more people than can be managed; at that point one or more additional VOS Teams will be created, and the Teams will all be part of a VOSG, Or VOS Group, and will be managed following standard ICS guidelines.

*** I want to mention that I’ve only been heavily engaged in social media use in disasters for about a year and a half now. That was about the time that I realized (by viewing the Red Cross Crisis Data Summit) how important social media was becoming in all phases of disaster. I’m sure that there are others that need to be acknowledged as innovators and originators in this work, but I’m basing this piece on what I know, so please feel free to fill in the back story in comments. I want to acknowledge both Jeff Phillips, and Heather Blanchard of Crisis Commons as the people that I first heard use the terms Virtual Operations Support” as applied to Emergency Management, and “DOC or digital operations center”.

**** a much more thorough academic study will soon be available on the Shadow Lake Fire “VIOS” (virtual information operations support) instance, and I also hope that others including Jeff Phillips, Cheryl Bledsoe and others will share their views on this and other VOST efforts.

***** ORVOAD is Oregon Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a group of faith-based and community service groups who assist those affected by disasters with long-term recovery.

LINKS to VOST Info & Resources:

Great definition of VOST and post about the first VOST at VOSG.us Website

VOSG/T Concept Report by Jeff Phillips

VOST/VOSG Real World Applications by Cheryl Bledsoe

 The VOS Forum at VOSG.us (Thanks to VOST member Joanna Lane for her work creating & maintaining VOSG.us!)

VOST Participants to date:

Joel Arnwine – @joelarn

Heather Blanchard – @poplifegirl

Cheryl Bledsoe @CherylBle

John Owen Butler – @okcalvin

Lloyd Colston – @KC5FM

Kris Eriksen – @kriseriksen

Brian Fields – @bwfabq

Scott Gauvin – @scottcgauvin

Jim Garrow – @jgarrow

Alisha Griswold – @alisha_beth

Mar Reddy-Hjelmfelt – @TheRedElm

Eric Kant – @TIJTechOps

Jerry Koenig – @alaskazone

Joanna Lane – @joannalane

Erik Metal – @metalerik

Jeff Phillips – @_JSPhillips @LosRanchosEM

Scott Reuter – @sct_r – @ORVOAD

Pascal Schuback – @schuback

Bill Smith – @EmrgncyTraffic

Stayce Smith – @staycesing

Kim Stephens – @Kim26stephens

Jared Woods – @cfeaap

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surrealism, cognitive dissonance and virtual volunteering for actual disasters

On Tuesday I was practicing digital disaster response, helping reformat and retweet critical flood, mudslide and other info to the “Tweak the Tweet” spreadsheet and map (#TtT) during the #NWrain, #WArain and #WAflood events, or “instances” as Data Informatics expert Kate Starbird (@Kate30_CU) calls them.

There was a lull in activity, and I was not finding a lot of useful info to put on the map. This is not a bad thing, except that I wanted to keep practicing, because who knows when a bigger emergency will happen, right? Well, guess what.

I started seeing reports of a tornado in a place called Aumsville. Turned out to be in Oregon. My state.

There’s a surreal feeling that occurs in these moments of disaster; it can occur not only at the disaster site, but also far away  as you try to fit the square peg of a new reality in to the round hole of what existed only a few minutes ago. I wrote about this a few months ago when I was helping Kate Starbird with the #Boulderfire response, which was my introduction to social media in emergencies.*

She had mentioned a surreal feeling as she worked to set up the response to a real emergency in her own community. I’d seen her first tweet saying that she was coming home from the gym and saw some smoke – within minutes it was obvious that a serious wildfire was underway and she was setting up the tool she had been using to help Haiti for an emergency in her own back yard. I jumped right in to help, and kept thinking about that conversation. After I thought about this for a couple of days, I wrote to her that I had felt the same thing myself during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles:

“…you mentioned early on in the fire that you had a surreal feeling as you worked setting up the response – this is very interesting to me, and I think that I know what you mean, as I had worked for many years at the J. Paul Getty Museum preparing the art and facility for disaster before the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (And everything worked! We suffered no losses due to good preparation and training!)
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But I remember how strange it felt, having spent years putting these preparations in place – and to see what happened when the earthquake hit and we began to operate as we had trained to. There is a certain cognitive dissonance between the envisioned response and the actual response, since you can never quite imagine exactly how a disaster will play out…”

Now back to the present disaster with flooding and slides instead of wildfires or quakes and now I have to switch to the tornado and here’s this feeling again. I don’t dwell on it, I just change my Tweetgrid searches from “mudslide”, “flood” etc… to “tornado”, “Aumsville” etc… and let the surreal feeling wash over me like Astoria rain, which does not usually fall straight down as much as sideways. I go to work; my searches: Aumsville. Tornado. Shelter. #ORtornado. Volunteer…

I ‘m resisting pressing the “delete” key on this post, as it sounds a little self-absorbed, but these are real thoughts emerging from real emergencies, and the surreal feeling is not just because I’m so far from the actual disaster, since I’ve experienced it from both inside the disaster experience, and now outside – not as a passive gawker, but as an active helper.

This tornado is no less real to me than the ’94 Northridge quake, my apartment shaking me awake at 5am, flashlight already switched on in my living room**, the smell of natural gas and the flash of downed power lines; no less real than the ’07 Oregon coastal gale, trees stacked on houses, the air thick with roof tiles flying like birds and downtown Astoria’s glass carpet of broken shop windows; no less real than the ’08 Nehalem Valley freeze and power outage, delivering supplies with a sled to folks who burned their furniture to stay warm when the firewood was gone.

As a digital volunteer I am not there in person to offer comfort, or help pick up debris, but I do what I can; I start my search of the stream for those key pieces of useful data that could  help someone to find shelter, locate a missing loved one, find assistance for an insurmountable task, or direct concerned well-wishers on the internet to a place where they could donate some dollars or valuable time to aid those who had a tougher day than they did.

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* I contacted Kate after seeing her #TtT presentation at the Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit. I think that like twitter, which is still discovering what it is, TtT will be an incredibly useful and resilient tool in catastrophic response and recovery. What other real-time, crowdsourced map can be populated with data directly from a disaster area using just a regular cell phone sending text messages to twitter? That’s not the only way to use it, but it’s one that seems to me to be full of possibility.

** I had acquired a vintage ’60’s flashlight a month before the quake. It was sitting on the floor in front of a framed photo that was leaning on my stereo. During the shaking, the picture fell forward, clipping the switch on the light, so when I ran to the living room during the shaking, my flashlight was sitting on in the middle of the floor. True story.

#talkdisaster

I have many interests within the disaster genre. My area of expertise is disaster planning and preparedness, with an extra-strange speciality of earthquake securing of art/objects, but since moving to Astoria, Oregon I’ve gotten involved in all phases of disaster work, and each new phase of the cycle I’ve learned informs the others.

I learned about disaster response through CERT and Astoria Fire & Rescue, and learned the hard way the importance of ham radio when all communications fail in a disaster. I then learned long-term recovery the hard way through my work as a disaster caseworker/project manager with my county LTRG (Long-Term Recovery Group), which I helped create. And now Social Media.

It’s the Social Media piece that has inspired me to start writing here. It’s great to be involved in the development of something that is truly changing the way disasters are dealt with by everyone. And each part of the disaster cycle will have to learn how social media will affect them, how it can help them, and what tools they will need to use so that they can help their community.

I think that I bring a unique perspective to the “Crisis Data” (#crisisdata) or “Social Media in Emergency Management” (#SMEM) discussion. I’ll be posting here on the aforementioned topics, especially as related to Social Media, and I hope that some of this discussion will be of interest, perhaps even be useful to others. Thanks for looking. I look forward to exchanging ideas, and hopefully they will be used to help people.

The earthquake securing is such a specialized topic that I may have to move it to its own page, but for now I’ll lump it all here together. -sr

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