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Law Enforcement Social Media Group Put To Test During Colby Fire

Image courtesy of the Azusa Police Department.
Image courtesy of the Azusa Police Department.
At least 40 representatives from 19 San Gabriel Valley law enforcement agencies met Jan. 15 to discuss how to use social media effectively in unifying emergency messages during major incidents.

Less than 24 hours later, the Colby Fire devastates the San Gabriel Mountains above Glendora and Azusa.

The fire was the first real test for the newly-formed San Gabriel Valley Law Enforcement Social Media group whose sole purpose is to provide training on effective uses of social media and to provide eMutual Aid during emergencies.

Officer Mike Bires of the Azusa Police Department spearheads much of the social media efforts for his agency. Upon initially contacting surrounding departments to form the group, he was quite surprised with how much each department wanted to be a part of this group.

"I was shocked with how big of a response we got. It's obviously a hot topic in law enforcement right now, as well as with communities," Bires said.

One of the most important aspects of the group is to form a unified command agency during emergencies, Bires said, which was apparent at the start of the Colby Fire.

The Azusa Police Captain told Bires that priority messages about the fire needed to be sent out over social media. Bires was on the road en route to the Colby Fire and couldn't oblige in a timely manner, so he enlisted the help of Arcadia Police Sergeant Tom LeVeque to use Azusa PD's social media outlets to get information out, Bires said.

Azusa and Glendora Police departments in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department immediately began sharing information on evacuations, school closures and evacuation centers for people and animals.

Bires remarked about one of the successes of social media during the fire came as residents of Azusa's Mountain Cove community, along the mountains of Highway 39, grew frustrated with not being able to return home.

Bires documented and shared the presence of active flames and rock slides along Highway 39 as the reasons for continued closure. Residents then began to understand why closures were still necessary.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, which has initiated its own effort over the years to better utilize social media, sent out unified messages through its five-agency Twitter feed and Facebook page.

Captain Mike Parker, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Public Information Officer, has spent several years with the help of Arcadia's Sergeant Tom LeVeque to train law enforcement agencies in the pros and cons of social media and to overcome hesitations in implemention for communicating with the public.

"It doesn't have to be a major fire, or major earthquake. It could something as unique as an extraordinary windstorm. Whether you live in the affected area, or you know somebody that lives in the affected area, people want to know what's going on," Parker said.

Parker said he was particularly impressed with how effectively agencies utilized hashtags during the Colby Fire.

"The speed of which law enforcement and fire fighters adapted to and adopted the hashtag was a huge help in the continuity of the message," Parker said.

Lieutenant Matt Williams of Glendora Police is the officer largely responsible for the utilization of the department's social media efforts, especially during the Colby Fire.

"Agencies in our area are recognizing the importance of social media, especially in terms of getting people on board with listening to the police department and fire department in case of emergencies," Williams said.

Glendora is considering expanding its social media presence by utilizing Instagram and Pinterest.

"I could foresee us having a social media team consisting of officers, or personnel, that their sole function is to augment the PIO and get information out," Williams said.

As far as improving the social media operation during emergencies, Bires would like to implement the social media officers of partnering agencies more to get messages out quicker.

Parker would like to communicate more information with preloaded links, such as links to evacuation centers, to get to the public quicker.

Although stating there is always room for improvement, Parker admires the relationship between police, fire agencies, the media and the public in sharing critical information.

"This combined effort with law enforcement, fire fighters, news media, the public, we truly are making it safer," Parker said.
Robert O'Connor January 23, 2014 at 02:23 PM
Actually I believe LE started with #GlendoraFire which ultimately was not correct, I've been tweeting fires since 2007 we have established a routine such as #ColbyFire Name of Incident + type along with #CaFire noting state & type... my 2 cents @CalFireNews

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