DC Homeland Security Agency Should Use Twitter More Effectively

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

By Porsha Jones

Twitter could be a valuable tool to keep the public engaged and alert during critical incidents.

The DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency’s (HSEMA) mission “is to support and coordinate homeland security and emergency management efforts, ensuring that the District of Columbia’s all-hazards emergency operations are prepared to protect against, plan for, respond to, and recover from natural and man-made hazards”.

The services that HSEMA provide include being staffed 24 hours/365 days a year by staff that monitor activities affecting the city to include weather conditions, public safety emergencies and special events such as marches, rallies and demonstrations.  Some of the more specific services include managing the Alert DC Emergency Notification System, emergency management and training exercises, and application of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) during critical incidents.  Lastly, HSEMA handles Special Event Planning to ensure minimal impact on surrounding communities and a secure environment for the public.

The HSEMA websites provides links to citizens to provide information in hazardous and emergency situations that may cause significant property damage, injury, or death.  The links provide detailed educational, informational, and preparation information to citizens.

In addition, HSEMA’s Community Emergency Management Plans Project (CEMP) will establish a set of neighborhood preparedness plans to inform District residents of the hazards they face, aid them in their personal preparedness plans for emergencies and provide a framework for DC residents to collaborate in their respective neighborhoods’ response to disasters.  The CEMP project will include a review of past neighborhood emergency planning efforts and create a set of plans informed by community outreach meetings and a series of discussions with civic, faith-based, public and private industry leaders.

HSEMA does a good job of providing timely and relevant information to the public on its website homepage about current events and critical incidents that may affect public safety.  To research the use of electronic media to stay up to date on critical incidents in the Nation’s Capital, I signed up for Alert DC and monitored Twitter notifications on the DC Homeland Security@DC_HSEMA website from January through May 7, 2011 for information about homeland security, emergency management, and general preparedness. The Twitter website at http://twitter.com/#!/DC_HSEMA or texting follow DC_HSEMA to 40404 provides the Twitter feed details for Tweets.

During data monitoring, the DC Homeland Security website data revealed that there are over 7,000 “Followers”, but less than 500 actually “Following” activity of HSEMA.  For individuals interested in other homeland security updates, the HSEMA website provides links to FEMA, NOAA, NEMA and other websites.

While following Tweets and Alert DC for email and text messages on critical incidents, it was observed that the email and text notifications are apparently identical to the Tweets that are sent. The alerts and Tweets consisted of weather alerts; school delays; road closures; traffic delays; Presidential speeches and the Mayor’s State of the District Address; police or fire activity; jail alarm testing; meeting notices; and power outages.

Detailed analysis for January 2011 through March 2011 revealed the following HSEMA Tweets:

  • January 2011 (13 weather; 1 Presidential speech reminder)
  • February 2011 (6 weather; 2 school/government closings; 1 ALERT DC reminder)
  • March 2011 (5 weather; 16 traffic; 4 utility work; 11 public safety; 5 events; 3 alerts; 3 speeches)

In April 2011, aside from traffic, police activity, and DC Jail test alarms, the only critical incidents that notifications were given for were a Tornado Watch and a Flood Advisory.

Astonishingly, on or after May 1, 2011 there was no mention of heightened alerts, being more vigilant or aware, or other reminders for security after the death of Osama Bin Laden in Tweets, text, or email alerts.  There were statements from Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and from DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray reminding residents to remain vigilant on the HSEMA homepage, however.  There is clearly a disconnect between the wonks manning the homepage for HSEMA and the person(s) putting out Tweets, texts, and email alerts during pertinent critical events.

In like fashion, there were no Tweets and no mention of heightened alerts, being aware, or reminders for security after approximately 40 suspicious letters with white powder were mailed to various educational facilities in the District of Columbia on May 5, 2011.  There was a Tweet notification in reference to schools being opened on time, but there was not enough detail to determine that the delay correlated to the suspicious letters.  Similar to the reaction to the death of Bin Laden, the Mayor made statements on the HSEMA homepage about the suspicious packages and HSEMA also posted the steps on what should be taken if a suspicious package is found under the HSEMA News tab.  This could have been another prime opportunity to utilize HSEMA Tweets for it’s intended purpose, especially since many residents, employees, and businesses in Washington, DC were concerned and wanting updates on developments.

The major problem with the types of Tweets, emails and alerts that are being put out by DC Homeland Security is that followers (7200 + Followers, but less than 500 actually Following) may suffer Twitter Fatigue due to the lack of urgency of the data being put out.  Aside from a few reminders to remain vigilant, the overwhelming majority of the Twitter information being put out is not in the spirit of the mission of HSEMA as stated above.  Texts and emails are appropriately disseminated from Alert DC since the end-user can choose the types of alerts that they would like to receive, but less appropriate for HSEMA which should disseminate Tweets of critical importance.

Another sticking point is that all of the alerts that had been opted out of for traffic, school delays, and utility alerts in Alert DC were all Tweeted, 100% of them.  This is an apparent poor coordination of functions and duplication of other agency information output between those posting Twitter alerts and those posting email and text alerts.

There has to be serious Deadweight Loss (the excess burden or allocative inefficiency) associated with this level of wasteful, non-urgent and non-pertinent information from the standpoint of those sending the information and those receiving it.  Similar to economist Joel Waldfogel’s Deadweight Loss analysis of holiday gift-giving…Yes there is the premise that there will be a positive from gift-giving, or in this case, a positive from the notifications that Twits (those receiving or waiting to receive Tweets) will receive to alert them of emergency instructions to save themselves, but in reality there is a cost to both due to the wasted man hours of employees and wasted personal time for those seeking notification of urgent messages.

HSEMA using Twitter to “Cry Wolf”, thus making it abundantly clear why less than 30% of their followers are tuned in for Tweets, for emergency notifications will ultimately lead to the desire by Twits to get wise and tune out since the alerts serve no major significance and there is no urgency to respond to them since it is most likely another non-essential alert.

Another potential problem is that the ability of citizens to communicate directly to certain agencies and assist the agency with understanding the full breadth of issues to be handled and concerns of citizens may prove to be helpful initially.  However, this will require the agency to have adequate staffing to man the Twitter, email and text feeds, as well as cipher through the nonsensical and wasteful Tweets that will quickly turn to criticism when the citizens don’t get an immediate response. This is another probable scenario appropriate for Deadweight Loss analysis.

Alternative resources and technologies that the District of Columbia utilizes that are more in line with the mission of HSEMA are 72hours.dc.gov and the website application Find Evacuation Route at http://dcatlas.dcgis.dc.gov/evac/ allow citizens to find evacuation routes in the event of a crisis.  72hours.dc.gov’s primary functions are to show the public how to get informed, make safety plans, make an emergency kit, and remain vigilant of their surroundings.

HSEMA could also allow citizens to choose whether they would like to receive routine, general, or only priority alerts.  Routine or General alerts would consist of alerts for weather, traffic, standard police or fire activity, major events, power outages, and meeting notices.  Priority alerts would consist of only critical incidents, public safety hazards, evacuation mandates, or shelter in place procedures.

HSEMA Interim Director Millicent West stated that it important to realize that, “community planning is the foundation of emergency management planning and a strategy of the agency and city leadership to ensure that communities are prepared for emergencies and disasters.” The key to handling any crisis is to be prepared and to be responsible in following instruction during an emergency.  Getting Tweets and other alerts to citizens will be helpful in understanding the nature of the events at hand and getting preliminary instructions for immediate reactions to the crisis.

The HSEMA website is thorough for preparation prior to a crisis, but the continual misuse of Twitter is bound to burn out those who have an interest in staying informed and plugged in.  There must be serious thought and consideration given by HSEMA to setting guidelines for priority messaging that will garner heightened attention and response to alerts.  The worst course of action would be to continue on this path and allow Twitter Followers to become complacent and ignore Tweets that could someday be critically important.  The best courses of action for HSEMA are to collaborate with other agencies to avoid duplication of messaging, define what is priority, and streamline information pertinent to Homeland Security to only Tweet priority messages and reminders.


Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Alert DC Page. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://textalert.ema.dc.gov/index.php?CCheck=1 on various dates February – May 2011.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Director’s Biography Page.  (n.d.) Retrieved from http://hsema.dc.gov/dcema/cwp/view,a,3,q,532003,dcemaNav,|31868|,.asp on April 22, 2011.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) Homepage. (n.d.) http://hsema.dc.gov/dcema

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Twitter Feed Page. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://twitter.com/#!/DC_HSEMA on various dates March – May 2011.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency 72hours.dc.gov Page. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://72hours.dc.gov/eic/site/default.asp on various dates March – May 2011.


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