By Taelor Duckworth, Digital Communications Specialist, American Red Cross North Texas Region
Roughly three short months ago, the sky was spinning gray over Texas. From the tornadoes in Van and the Panhandle to the floods in and around Austin, Houston and even dear old Dallas, Texans everywhere were begging the question, “Will this storm system ever end?”
Internally, the disaster relief operation for the American Red Cross was so erratic and unpredictable; we just labeled it “Texas Spring Storms”, because if there was a type of storm – we had it! Tornadoes, thunderstorms, an earthquake, tropical storm warnings, hail, flash floods… the list goes on and on. The only thing we didn’t get was a plague of locusts!
In the midst of the chaos, the Red Cross was there as usual. We fed, we sheltered, we counseled, we advised and most of all, we lent a listening ear to so many who had endured so much. If there’s one thing a Red Crosser loves, it’s giving, and give they did. Many of you have seen and heard about the great things our boots on the ground have done to help those in need. But what you may not know is that we had a team who was there before the storms even began and who endured them with you as they touched down from hundreds and thousands of miles away.
This special group of Red Crossers lived those storms vicariously through the digital space. They worked from their devices, day and night, and monitored the storm systems as they moved across the state. They provided our operations teams with information about where the storms hit hardest, what roads were closed and what areas were the most damaged. Thus, allowing us to send volunteers out to set up shelters and send food trucks to where they were needed most. They spoke with people lost, afraid and in the path of deadly storms who didn’t know what to do. Then, they provided actionable steps for people to take and life-saving information. They worked diligently around the clock, taking shifts in the middle of the night to ensure that no piece of information was left unfound and no person in need was left untouched. Many of them did it from home, and some from far away. In the digital space, Red Cross volunteers supported our DFW digital volunteers from places like Philadelphia, Arizona, Houston and Austin.
These folks worked from their houses and monitored social media platforms from their personal computers, laptops, tablets and phones. Thanks to a generous donation from Dell, the Red Cross in DFW got our very own digiDOC just a little over a year ago (the second in the country after our National Headquarters in Washington D.C.). This hardware also came with SalesForce Radian6 technology which allows us to listen to the social spaces and respond in real time.
While we keep the digiDOC fully staffed during a disaster, we still need more digivols to remote in. With such high-powered software, there is always more information being collected than people with sifting tools. So, when disaster strikes, you can imagine us frantically hitting the big, red button that alerts all hands on deck. We ask our digivols to work in four hour shifts because they deal with high-powered and highly stressful situations that require lots of energy and emotions. Anita Foster, our regional chief communications officer, lovingly likens the Radian6 console to a Las Vegas slot machine – one that updates every 30 seconds with critical new information.
To give you an idea of how it works, Radian6 runs off of “Topic Profiles”, a fancy name for keyword groups. For example, if we were interested in floods in DFW, we would set up a profile that searches for words like ‘flood’, ‘damage’, ‘Dallas’, ‘Fort Worth’, etc. Then, any posts on Twitter and Facebook with those words in the message would be pulled into our search results. From here, our digital volunteers can run searches, respond to people, give out virtual hugs, collect information and help us run analytical reports on the conversation topics and trends. They also push messages that tell you how to prepare, like #TurnAroundDontDrown and safety tips for flooding in your home. With the addition of digivols to our team, our response time can be up to 48 hours sooner than it would have been without the use of social media. Their job is tedious, their reach is broad and thankfully they always answered the call to action joyfully.
To put it into perspective, here’s what they did during the Texas Spring Storms:
- More than 35 digital volunteers logged over 500 hours in a span of 3 months!
- Only 19 of those digivols were on the North Texas team. The other 16+ came from Colorado, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania and all across the United States. The majority of the out-of-staters monitored from their home state, hundreds of miles away from the actual touchdown sites.
- Digivols ran or supported the entire state of Texas in the digital space which consists of 19 Facebook pages and 14 Twitter handles along with 3 blog sites, 3 YouTube accounts and 3 Flickr photostreams.
- We started a viral social media campaign (#allin4TX) to encourage support of the disaster relief.
- We connected a family with hearing disabilities to a caseworker on the ground in their area from over 200 miles away through Facebook.
- Throughout the duration of the operation, more than 1 million conversations took place about Texas spring storms in the digital space.
- Digital volunteers sifted through an average of 20,000 tweets and Facebook posts per day.
While all of these stats are certainly impressive, I believe our team is most impressed with the people we were able to touch. The nurse in Van who wouldn’t have known about the tornado warning if she hadn’t been following us on Twitter; the young girl who was scared and couldn’t get in touch with her grandfather in Bastrop during a time when his town was being evacuated; the woman who wasn’t quite sure where to take her family to make sure they were safe in the midst of a brewing storm; it’s these people who were helped by digivols that make all of the long hours and sleepless nights well worth it.
I am so thankful for every Red Crosser who came into Texas to help keep us all afloat, but I want to give a special THANK YOU to the digiteam. Without you, none of this would have been possible. Thank you for taking the late night shifts so I could sleep, thank you for working tirelessly through some pretty rough waters and conversations, and thank you for weathering the storm with the rest of us and showing your love for Texas. I’ll speak for Texans everywhere when I say, we can’t express our gratitude enough.
It makes me proud to see the Red Cross using social media to make positive change, and I’m excited to be a part of it. If you’re interested in becoming a digital volunteer or would like to know more about how the Red Cross uses social media, visit our page at http://www.redcross.org/tx/dallas-fort-worth/DigiDOC.