Citizen Resiliency – The Allentown Explosion’s Accidental Networks and Spontaneous Communication

One moment residents of a block of brick row houses in Allentown, Pennsylvania are going about their ordinary lives, the next moment, 10:45 pm on February 9, 2011 to be exact, an earth-shattering explosion fueled by a natural gas pipeline break killed five people, leveled half the block, and set fire to the rest of it in rapid succession.  Regional CEO John HughesAmerican Red Cross Lehigh Valley chapter was deployed to the fairgrounds to address the primary needs of safety, shelter, food, clothes, and medications.  When he arrived at the temporary shelter he asked something that he and his counterparts may not have contemplated five years ago or more.  He asked “does anyone have the capacity to use Facebook and Twitter to tell people what’s going on here?”  A nearby volunteer took out his smart phone and began using social media to get the message out almost immediately.  Hughes said “I never really understood the value of it, but now I see how it can be used as a tool of great value”.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, people in the Lehigh Valley and beyond were engaged in helping to collect enormous amounts of tangible and cash donations.  Although he thought “someone was pulling my leg”, Hughes received a call on his cell phone from Actress Sharon Stone who hails from Pennsylvania asking what she and her charitable foundation could do to help.  Existing faith-based and business groups immediately came together to offer help.  He said that less cohesive informal networks “saw a need, they jumped in, they did what they could with the need, they felt bad about what had happened, then they moved on” all in the span of two weeks to a month.

The electronic memory of what happened on that February night is well-preserved in countless traditional media accounts, through social media channels, and written reports.  Hughes says that going forward “we need to do a better job of getting the message out and capturing people’s attention at that point, bringing them in, and using the event to build on that. Regardless of whom you are, where you live, what your income level is, you can be impacted and affected in some way. You need to be prepared and have a plan. In a disaster you need to first take care of yourself and your family, but if you want to be involved in helping your community, we need to find a way make that happen.”

If you were the Director of the local Red Cross chapter, how could you be better prepared to communicate with citizens who want to help and how can they be effectively organized?


4 thoughts on “Citizen Resiliency – The Allentown Explosion’s Accidental Networks and Spontaneous Communication

  1. John Hughes advocates for citizen groups, specifically the Citizen Corps, to ensure that those individuals that want to help are able to receive advanced training. He states that despite good intentions, untrained volunteers can be more damaging and distracting than helpful. This issue of “spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers” (SUVs) continues to be an issue during disaster response and recovery. As described by Hughes, they might not know how to help and they don’t know what to do and as a result he supports the notion of targeting those individuals before a disaster strikes to ensure that they are formally and functionally integrated with efforts. While channeling individuals through formal citizen groups like the Citizen Corps, Community Emergency Response Teams, the Medical Reserve Corp and other similar groups is certainly beneficial, failure to plan for and proactively manage SUVs could be a lost opportunity.
    Last October, in 2011, an eight-year old, low-functioning, autistic boy went missing in North Anna Battlefield Park (Doswell, VA). With initial search and rescue attempts unsuccessful and freezing weather in the night, the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office used thousands of volunteers to augment the search effort over multiple days. The county sent out announcements, through the media, calling for volunteers. Officials created a volunteer check-in area, provided on-site training and instructions, and organized volunteer teams before sending them into the park to look for the child. Ultimately, after six days of searching, the boy was found and reunited with his family.
    Clearly there are elements of disaster response which are simply off limits to anyone other than official emergency management; However, through advanced scenario planning, various tasks could be identified for SUVs as well as the staff needed to support the just-in-time training and integration of these individuals. This was the approach used in Doswell and could be attributed as the difference between life and death for the lost boy. It’s important to note, however, that whether soliciting volunteers through traditional media or social media, it is important to specify any advanced requirements or restrictions. Some people drove across the state to join the search effort only to learn that certain medical conditions excluded them from being able to participate.

  2. Social media outlets have proven extremely useful in disaster response in recent years. They have played an increasingly significant role in community awareness and disaster relief efforts.
    During last year’s earthquake / tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster as well as the earthquake that affected the East Coast of the U.S., more specifically Washington, D.C. and the Commonwealth of Virginia, we noticed citizens relying more and more on social media than the official authorities for information.
    In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, social media’s real-time raw and unfiltered audio and video reports were providing a more truthful and relevant coverage of the continuing nuclear crisis than the selective and filtered copy being carried by the conventional news agencies.
    During the earthquake that affected the East Coast on August 23rd, 2011, the twitter feeds were traveling faster than the earthquake waves. Many citizens knew an earthquake was approaching before they actually felt it. The earthquake caused 40,000 earthquake-related tweets on Twitter, was discussed in more than 3 million Facebook accounts, and caused Twitter to hit 5,000 tweets per second. ( Even with this large amount of tweets, Twitter never had any issues and never slowed down, reiterating once more the capacity and the reliability of its means.
    How can we best use this capability that has the power to reach many? Through social media, we can listen to, inform and empower people prior to emergencies, providing them with useful information about evacuation routes, shelters and safety tips before disasters strike.
    During emergencies, people have a strong desire to help and volunteer at disaster sites. As many After Action Reports and Lessons Learned have brought to light, and as was the case during the aftermath of the Joplin Tornado last year, volunteers can do more harm than good and become a challenge for the Incident Manager to manage. Emergency managers can take advantage of social media to better manage these challenges.
    Just last month, the American Red Cross (ARC) launched a digital operations center and digital volunteer program to coordinate response efforts during disasters. “The Digital Operations Center demonstrates the increasing importance of social media in emergency situations. The launch of a Digital Volunteer program will help Red Cross respond to questions and information from the public during disasters.” ( ) The ARC is trying to keep up with the 21st century and update its humanitarian services to better serve people that can get organized by themselves without feeling the need for institutions.

  3. Regional CEO John Hughes’ of American Red Cross Lehigh Valley chapter comments about this event in Allentown, PA yet again reminds us of the importance of preparation and how things have changed dramatically in the last few years regarding social networking and media. The media has been a big part of planning for quite some time but we must now incorporate tweeting, skyping and other new technology developments are key communication plans in case of an emergency. I point to how, in the aftermath to prepare for a disaster, such as Hurricane Irene, federal agencies – like FEMA – and local governments – like Montgomery Co., MD – have now turned to social media to prepare their workers, volunteers, outside assistants organizations and the general public for response. Have this part of your preparation allows you to help get the message on how people should respond, how they can help and distribution of new information as it arises in the aftermath of such disasters. It is important for not only the responding government agencies but also the non-government assistant organizations to have included this in their response plans. This could include websites such as the one at FEMA,, which is linked to its Facebook page and Blog It also includes a Twitter feed, in English and Spanish. It would also be smart to include a smart phone application (or app) that would also feed into the information being distributed on the other social networks.
    All of this comes with the technological breakthroughs of just the last five years. Social network/media are essential for rapid response, successful recovery and more organized and timely clean up in the aftermath.
    Social media has dramatically changed how the government and non-government entities can respond in the dynamic environment of a disaster by:
     Alerting managers and official from emergency response organizations
     Increasing the public’s ability to have access to government officials and agencies.
     Allowing responders and the public to communicate.
     Relieves some of the tremendous pressure put on the 911 emergency system during events.
    It is imperative that from the lessons that were learned in Allentown, PA that they maintain their institutional memory. They must retain the knowledge that they have gain and remember that this – or some other type of disaster – could happen again. The designation of those who are willing to serve will always be a key component of their response plan, however, their future use of social media will allow them to reach a much larger audience in the general public and help with keep the need for preparedness on everyone’s mind.

  4. With the explosion in Allentown PA there was an opportunity to use accidental networks and social media communication to get the word out what happened. This occurred when the question came up, can anyone get on Facebook and Twitter and get tell (the public) people what happened. You can expand on this key use of spontaneous communication to also be for notifying first responders. For example there could be a twitter account that is used for public emergency response. The one of the responding non-governmental agencies such as the red cross or a government agencies such as the police, fire, ambulance, and local government could own the twitter account. They could then send out messages that first responders who are on-call need to report in for duty. With some public utilities possibly being unavailable, like one of the telephone or cable companies, but not another, this makes sense. You can check the twitter and face book web site, get an instant message on your phone, and get an email message, and get a text to voice voicemail message sent out of your two-way radios. This would ensure that the first responders got the message. They could respond with a reply such as (1) I am enroute and will be there soon, (2) I am out of the area and cannot respond, (3) I am in trouble and need assistance myself, or (4) I have arrived at the muster point and am beginning to provide first responder services.
    This two way communications of an ad-hoc spontaneous communications network could also help the injured, and those in need of assistance. If you are buried under a collapsed building there is a chance that the phone land lines are ripped up, or you are not near a traditional telephone. However there is a much greater chance that you have a smart phone. You could peck out a tweet, “Help me I am in the basement of building #2.”
    An advancement of the application of the technology could be the use of ad-hoc communications networks as part of the emergency broadcast system. This is not an opt in type of option that your work or university gives you. Rather you could have all the phones within a certain cell tower’s range, or within a certain GPS area receive targeted messages. Thereby only the people in the affected area get certain messages. They could get a text message saying, “Based on the GPS on your phone, you are in the path of a category four hurricane. It will be in your area in less than 10 minutes. Seek immediate shelter.” Then it could send out another tweet or text message saying, “Respond to this message with, (1) if you need help, and (2) the type, medical, fire, police, food, shelter).

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