What 1 USAR team learned from using social media in La. flooding

In the midst of chaos, Facebook was a valuable tool for a water-rescue task force; here's what they got right and what they'll change


By Catherine R. Counts and Ruel Douvillier

When 7 trillion gallons of rain pummeled southern Louisiana in mid-August, the Louisiana Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team received over half a dozen requests for aid or information via Facebook Messenger.

Given that more than 20,000 people were rescued from rising floodwaters over the course of that same week, half a dozen requests may seem like a drop of rain in the ocean, but to those individuals, LATF-1 was a governmental entity that could help, and in many cases, it was the only one responding via social media. 

Photo provided by the authors.

Photo provided by the authors.

We were activated on August 13 and deployed the following day for water-based search and rescue missions, joining the hundreds, if not thousands, of other boats filling Louisiana's flooded roadways to make sure our neighbors were not trapped by the rising waters. That mission evolved into a search and recovery mission as the week progressed. 

After the first message was received, LATF-1 leadership decided to respond to all messages as they were received. Since we only ever received secondhand information from worried families and friends, we had no way of knowing the accuracy or reliability of the information we were passing on. We passed each call for assistance on anyway, directly to the operations section chief of the incident management team. 

We thanked the messenger with a text response and let them know we had forwarded the request to the appropriate authorities. In all cases we received a reply message of thanks, and sometimes even an update once the flood victims had been rescued. 

The Facebook safety check was activated during the flooding. But because of the large geographic area, varying timelines of the flooding and a lack of data coverage in the effected areas, it was a less-than reliable source for accurate information on an individual's safety.

Armchair responders
In some cases, we have no way of knowing whether or not we played any part in the rescue of these individuals, in others we were informed of the victim's rescue before the incident management team could deploy a response team.

But we do know that we played a role in the trust that the residents of Louisiana place in governmental agencies. In that moment they felt their voice had been heard. 

Given past false alarms, we intentionally delay alerting social media about our deployments until they are already underway. However, in this case, a real deployment happened and we didn't tell our followers until four days into the response phase.

Once we posted something, most Facebook page fans simply liked or shared the post, with a select few sending comments of prayer and well wishes.

To our surprise, we did receive one comment to the effect of, "What took you so long?" This comment likely mirrored the growing frustration with the lack of national media coverage surrounding the flooding.

Rather than delete the comment or block the commenter, we responded as diplomatically as possible —simply stating that we had been deployed since the weekend prior and had been unable to post an update.

The comment was almost instantly deleted by its author. 

When diplomacy doesn't work
As a search and rescue team, we are responsible for the care of people first and foremost. Although we have a canine team, many of whom were also deployed, we only assist with an animal rescue should we encounter one in the course of regular operations. We are not trained, nor expected, to seek out rescues geared towards pets, livestock or other animals. 

But not everyone knows that. 

Once the waters started to recede, two women reached out, each attempting to rescue the same group of neglected dogs. Although the dogs weren't in a flooded area, it was obvious they needed help. These women had taken the initiative — independent of one another — to provide food and water while seeking out an organization that could formally take on the animals. 

That's when they found us. And for the next two days we messaged back and forth, explaining that we worked within a structured response system and couldn't "break ranks" to rescue these dogs. At times their frustration with our inability to assist was so apparent they asked for the name of the operations section chief, something we weren't able to provide. 

It took a phone call from one of our canine handlers explaining our model of response as well as recommending a number of animal groups conducting rescues in the area for them to understand that we weren't the appropriate group. They thanked us for the information and never contacted us again. 

A week later we determined that the dogs had been rescued by the original messenger and personally transported to a nearby no-kill shelter. No official rescue groups, animal or human, had been involved in their care. 

Lessons learned
Our USAR task force is extremely lucky to have an overwhelmingly supportive group of social media followers. Not only do they include our first responders and their family members, but also strangers from across the globe. That level of support was mirrored during this recent activation from most, if not every, follower. 

There were many similarities in scope and size that this disaster shared with Hurricane Katrina as well as a lack of national media attention and a polarized political response. Therefore, many of the negative emotions we faced weren't necessarily directed at us.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have been prepared to respond. Because the last thing we want to do is discourage any requests for help. 

We now know that managing our Facebook page during this activation would have been significantly less stressful had we incorporated the following seven steps.

  • Designate one person to handle all social media responses and postings.
  • Ensure that no personal contact information is available on the public page.
  • Pre-identifying contact information that the public can use to request aid.
  • Alert our followers to an activation within 24 hours.
  • Have an automatic response to Facebook messages.
  • Pre-script responses for requests for aid, with the next steps delineated depending on the type of request received.
  • Develop a mechanism for determining the timeliness of a second-hand request for aid to avoid any false alarms. 

As demonstrated by the thousands of civilians, better as known as the Cajun Navy, that deployed their boats into the flood waters looking to help with rescues, the people of Louisiana are more than willing to step into action when they feel that the government isn't doing enough. But a lack of responsiveness on social media should never be deemed as the reason why they feel the need to launch out on their own. 

We are proud to have been active on social media during the recent flooding and we will continue to improve our use of this modern-day communication platform to reflect our recent experiences. We owe it to those individuals we have sworn to serve. 

About the authors:
Ruel Douvillier spent 20 years in the Army, serving as a medic, infantryman and paratrooper. He spent five years as a paramedic with New Orleans Emergency Medical Services, and 14 years with the New Orleans Fire Department, most of that time with their heavy technical rescue squads. He has also served with private ambulance services and volunteer and combination fire departments. He has extensive experience as an instructor. Ruel is presently the task force leader of the State and Regional USAR team, Louisiana Task Force 1 and the operations manager for SAR Specialists, an emergency response training company.

Catherine R. Counts is a doctoral candidate in the department of global health management and policy at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine where she also previously earned her master of health administration. Counts has research interests in domestic health care policy, quality and patient safety, organizational culture and pre-hospital emergency medicine. She is a member of Academy Health, Academy of Management, the National Association of EMS Physicians and National Association of EMTs. In her spare time, Counts serves as one of the canine managers of the state and regional USAR team, Louisiana Task Force 1.

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