Keep calm and tweet on: Social media takes on new role in emergency response


(CBS News) When superstorm Sandy struck, phone lines were jammed as people across the Northeast scrambled to report flooding, fires, and power outages. Many panic-stricken New Yorkers took to Twitter in hopes of getting a more immediate response than jammed emergency-service lines like 911 or 311 could provide.

Emily Rahinmi, the young woman behind FDNY's Twitter and social media efforts made headlines with her quick and calm responses to residents in need. Her efforts continue this week as new hazards emerge during the recovery process. And while social media remains a valuable tool for emergency personnel disseminating one-way safety information -- Con Edison of New York has been keeping customers informed about power restoration and you'll find candle use warnings and ways to get involved in the ongoing recovery efforts on the FDNY's Twitter feed -- during the storm, it became an invaluable means of two-way communication.

Rahimi told CBS News that throughout the night of the storm, she was fixed at her computer, responding to an unprecedented amount of incoming, panicked tweets.

"It was definitely emergency response and trying to respond for calls for help," she said of the first 24 hours after Sandy made landfall. "At around the same time, people were tweeting that they were in their house, they had no phone service of any kind, and the water was coming in and they were getting really scared."

Rahimi was able to communicate with dispatchers and get help to many of those on the other end of the desperate tweets, but she is insistent that Twitter only be used as a fallback option in unique circumstances. During Sandy, she explained, "there were plenty of people saying they were trying to call 911 and it would connect for a second and drop, so they tweeted."

"I definitely did not...and do not...want people to use Twitter as an alternative to 911 or an alternative to 311 because I don't have any way of dispatching units. I can't enter information into the 911 system," she elaborated. "For people thinking it would be just as fast to tweet it out, that's definitely not true."

And while she insists there is a place for social media in emergency response, she maintains that her role was really more about calming people down and helping to direct them to the proper channels to report emergencies or in the aftermath, to volunteer their time.

Rahimi also played a role in combating a growing tide of misinformation and misreporting about the storm. "I had to tweet out that a fire unit on Staten Island was not robbed, which people were reporting like crazy," she said before adding, "I try to use our channel as a way to dispel rumors and calm people down." 

And, she is quick to redirect much of the praise she has received for what many have lauded as swift and savvy handling of Sandy. 

"I don't think I was doing anything groundbreaking," she said, allowing that she got some "lovely feedback from the field for her work. "I hate taking credit for this, I was just in here, typing...there were guys out there in gale-force winds, trying to go through six feet of water to rescue people."