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Internet, social media useful to Red Cross

During a natural disaster, communication is key. For that reason, local disaster relief agencies are using all the communication tools at their disposal, including the Internet and social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Merrill Davis, executive director of the Covington County chapter of the American Red Cross, said many local chapters are using social networks as a way to get out their message to the public.

“If you look at the wildfires out in California, the chapter in Santa Barbara has a Twitter account where they can constantly put out the latest information about the disaster,” Davis said. “A lot of the communication we do online is informative about disasters, but it can also be a useful tool for letting people know about fund-raising campaigns and other things the Red Cross does.”

Currently, the county chapter has a Web site (covingtonarc.wordpress.com), as well as a presence on the social networking sites Facebook (search for “Covington County Red Cross”) and Twitter (account name: CovCoRedCross) and the photo-sharing Web site, Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/covingtoncountyredcross).

Davis’ predecessor Jeffery Biggs helped spearhead much of the chapter’s online presence, but Davis said he is committed to continuing that work.

“We’re in the process of going through and following up with what (Biggs) started,” he said. “It’s kind of hard, because it takes a lot of time to keep all those things updated, but we’re going to do what we can. We’re looking at what’s already been done and what’s been effective, and we want to keep doing everything we can to keep the public aware.”

Davis said he could envision a day when citizens would be able to instantly receive the latest news during a natural disaster. He, and other employees at the Red Cross, have smart phones that could be used to connect to the Internet and update a Twitter feed or Web page, even while out in the field.

“We are going to take the steps to where we can use Twitter, or something like Twitter, to give quick updates as things change,” he said. “Maybe we’ll be able to post when a particular shelter is open, or when and where disaster kits and supplies are available. We’re in constant communication with the EMA and other agencies, and we’d be able to pass that information along to the public.”

One problem with social networks is that there is little accountability, and often little truth in what is posted. Davis said it is imperative the Red Cross puts out only completely true information.

“We just have to make sure everything that’s put out there is correct and factual,” he said. “But once we get it working, I can definitely see social networks as another tool we can use. Like we do with newspapers, radios, television and other media, it’s just another way of keeping the public informed.”