Emergency communication: Why wasn’t social media ablaze during Black Saturday?

The Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009 in Victoria was one of the worst and memorable disasters to hit Victoria. Four hundred individual fires were reported across Victoria on that day with 78 townships affected. Australian’s were glued to their TV’s as the media coverage unfolded. The stories of survival, heroism, and loss pulled at the heartstrings of the nation. The aftermath of the disaster was catastrophic with five townships, Kinglake, Narbethong, Strathewen, Marysville, and Flowerdale, destroyed. An estimated 7,562 people were displaced, while 173 people died and 414 injured due to the disaster. More information on the Black Saturday bushfires can be found here.

One St Andrews resident caught this footage before retreating to a bunker on his property.

We all remember the constant media coverage running almost 24/7 on our TV’s and the images and stories playing for months afterwards. However, the Black Saturday bushfires are even more memorable to me as just two days after the roads to Kinglake were reopened I visited a family who’s house was surrounded by burnt bushland but were lucky enough to only loose a few woodsheds because they stayed back to fight the fires and save their home. Adding to this, the law firm I work for to this day is still helping people who lost their homes, properties and belongings make insurance claims 7 years on.

Knowing what factors worked and did not work and the lessons learnt when it came to crisis communication and social media is important to ensure that people are more prepared and informed when something like this occurs again.

During the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, there was a lack of engagement on social media from Victorian emergency services. The emergency response framework that was put in place was 30 years old and largely outdated. The CFA had a Facebook page but did not use it to send out fire warnings or updates on incidents. Despite the wide use of social media, a crisis map containing crowdsourced information from social media was not used due to a lack of resources.

Analysis and recommendations of social media use in emergencies based on Black Saturday

Since the 2009 bushfires, emergency response via social media has improved across Australia, not only in Victoria. During the 2013 bushfires in NSW, the NSW rural fire service were prepared with an app called ‘Fires near me’ that was downloaded over 200,000 times as well as a regularly updated Facebook page which recorded over a million views an hour. A social media campaign also created awareness of the NSW Rural Fire Service and their social media accounts. More on NSW crisis management during the bushfires here.

Since the Black Saturday bushfires, there has been widespread emergency response on social media. Warnings, response, and recovery are now incorporated in official social media accounts of emergency services; however, one report suggests that greater disaster risk reduction awareness strategies need to be included in social media crisis strategies. Victoria has followed this recommendation by introducing a summer fire campaign that runs during the fire season. This includes a FireReady app and a VicEmergency website, along with social media, TV, radio, and newspaper campaigns. 367,000 people now receive campaign messages on Facebook and Twitter via the CFA accounts.

Lastly, after the 2009 bushfires there were calls to develop a nationwide framework for best practices for social media use in crises.

The Black Saturday bushfires that horrified the nation have led to the progrssive incorporation of social media in natural disasters, but there is still much to do.

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