Pinellas County Emergency Management spokesman Tom Iovino looked over the department's list of Twitter followers, delighted at the mix of 1,100 organizations, people and other characters keeping up with the county's emergency tweets.
"Friends of Strays, Indian Rocks EOC, the Weather Channel. … Hey, we even have a pizzeria following us," Iovino said. "And here's a bird."
Hey, it's a start. Social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have been around for years now, but government emergency agencies' use of these sites is "still in the infancy stages," said Hillsborough County Emergency Management interim director Jeff Copeland. Navigating them as important tools for spreading information — as opposed to online socializing — is still somewhat of a puzzle.
"We're still trying to figure out the best way to use these sites," Copeland said. "We want to make sure we're delivering a consistent message, and make sure it's available to as many people as possible."
But how do emergency managers ensure that message doesn't get muddled with rumors, urban myths and other information that swirls among the very same social media sites they're using?
Most seem to follow the same policy: If it's not from an official source, and it's not something they would normally release in an official public alert, they won't repeat it.
"We're not going to tweet that Joe saw a tornado coming," Iovino said. "Our job is to evaluate the feeds that are coming in and send out the ones that are from the experts, like the National Weather Service."
The new National Hurricane Center Facebook page, which had just over 5,000 followers in the first four months since it was created, will post links only to its own website and won't allow others to post on its wall.
"It's just another tool in the toolbox," spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. "Perhaps with Facebook we'll be able to reach audiences we wouldn't normally reach."
It's also a good way to gauge public feedback, although emergency managers hope to avoid discerning fact from fiction, Iovino said. With so many voices flooding so many social networking platforms, myths and misinformation could be rampant and far too accessible.
In a way, though, that's nothing new.
"We dealt with that even before the Internet was popular," Iovino said. "In a disaster situation where we're trying to put out information, you'll always have that instance where people want to fill in the blanks. Social media is just a continuation of that."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.