The Value of An Established Social Network In Times of Crisis



Brother can you spare a boat?

It took four hour for the Atlanta Fire Department (AFD) to get their rescue personnel into a rescue boat during recent flooding in the city – as AFD  floundered smack dab in the middle of one of the wealthiest zip codes in the city, if not the entire country.

Four hours to acquire a boat in a portion of a city where people have likely dozens of boats, of a vast variety, idling in backyard garages. Dozens. Just minutes away from a flooded creek from which people needed immediate rescuing.

According to The Sunday Paper, when AFD went broke during this recession they were forced to sell the only rescue boat they owned before the big flood of September 2009.

So be it. If you need a boat in 30327 and you can’t put out a plea to any number of neighbors and citizens nearby, in a time of crisis, who would gladly and urgently have offered a boat to assist in the rescue of neighbors and fellow citizens in the Internet Age, then that’s a sorry state of communication – a state of communication that illuminates just how critical it is that our social networks include, and overlap with, government entities and the people they serve and seek to assist. And vice versa.

During the flooding the week of September 20, 2009 in Atlanta there was almost no interruption to communication infrastructure such as cellular networks and Internet services.

Had anyone on the fire department rescue team asked any 30327 resident, bystander, onlooker or neighbor to help locate a boat, chances are someone could have stood right by the rising creek, whipped out a phone (smart kind or othewise) and called someone to assist with the immediate loan of an appropriate boat.

A 30327 resident might have sent out an urgent request on a neighborhood message board for a boat. Someone could have used their Twitter (and the #atlflood hashtag) or Facebook network to locate a boat.

If the Atlanta Fire Department had built their own Twitter and/or Facebook social network of citizens of the areas of Atlanta they serve, AFD could have used that network, immediately, to locate and acquire a boat — within the hour of need I’d guess.

But first you must, of course, HAVE a social network to ask things of and to utilize in times  of crisis! It’s not that the fire department did not have a boat to call their own; rather they could not get their hands on ANY boat for four hours… while they were surrounded in a sea of possible boats.

I recently witnessed a local Atlanta social network jump into action to assist an elderly neighbor who was discovered living without water service for over a year. Once people in the neighborhood became aware of the neighbor’s plight, and what was needed to help the situation, an entire community and social network kicked in to serve and assist. Virtually instantly. All because one email was sent to an established social network. In that particular case, a network created via a simple, free Yahoo! Message Board/group.

In times of crisis, people want to serve. People will serve and assist in whatever way, small or large, that they are capable of. Any disaster scenario has proved that over and over again.

But it takes communication to let people know what exactly is needed to kick-start our inherent sense of service. And it takes leadership. And it takes foresight.

Now, especially in a deep recession, it very well may take an established social network. Because a social network is comprised of all kinds of people – people who are willing and able and eager to serve…  in most cases.

In the case of severe flooding, your social network may very well have just the boat you need… if you ask that of your network.

6 responses »

  1. I suspect all the 30327 residents have their boats docked somewhere trendy, complete with marina monkeys. A handy backyard-parked boat would probably have to come from a more remote zipcode.


  2. I’ve observed plenty of boats, particularly smaller motor boats or a john boat, in garages in the area. Of course most, in season, would be off at some marina somewhere. But why do you think people buy houses with 6-car garages? Just the cars? Not in every case.

    Anyway, it doesn’t really matter as the whole point of the post is that you never know what your social network might be able to provide in a time of crisis… provided one does the advance work necessary to build a social network.


  3. Hear, hear! I nominate you, Grayson, social network czar! No joke!

    Sad to suggest, but I’m sure there are litigation issues w/county personnel and unauthorized (and therefore possibly unreliable, read lawsuit-vulnerable) water craft… but that doesn’t prevent the citizenry from pitching in themselves in time of need, said need be known.


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  5. After mentioning this incident about Atlanta Fire and Rescue at a SoCon10 conference, I received this email from someone with GEMA. I copy it here with her permission:

    “Your social media workshop at SoCon 10 was very interesting. There certainly are a variety of ways social media can be used in a crisis!

    I am writing in response to the story you cite in your blog post and presented in the workshop, “The Value of an Established Social Network in Times of Crisis,” which you call an example of “a sorry state of communication.”

    The City of Atlanta’s Fire and Rescue Department didn’t just need any old boat; they needed a swift-water rescue TEAM with the proper equipment and training to work for several hours in turbulent waters, enduring bug bits, scrapes and cuts.

    These resources are formally requested through the Georgia Mutual Aid Group and GEMA. Usually these resources can be found in neighboring counties. However, in the case of the 2009 Atlanta flood, responders in neighboring counties were tackling their own crises. More than 200 people had to be rescued from homes and vehicles, and half of these rescues were conducted in just a six-hour period.

    Members of the Augusta Fire Department’s Swift Water Rescue Team were among several teams that responded to Atlanta’s call for help, conducting some 30 rescues and evacuations along Peachtree Creek. The final rescue led to some tense moments when the swift-water rescue boat struck an object in the water, throwing two firefighters and three evacuees into the current. Rescuers in a still-water boat –- an emergency purchase by the City of Atlanta during the event (yes, they now have a boat)– retrieved the three victims and their dog, and all were brought safely to shelter.

    The swift-water boat was lost, however. Fortunately, because proper channels were followed and a presidential disaster declaration was declared, FEMA will reimburse the City of Augusta for their lost boat. If a private citizen had provided this boat, however, he would have had to file an insurance claim.

    Also, while good Samaritans often have the best of intentions, they frequently become victims themselves. This was the case when Carroll County high school student’s car was swept away on Little Snake Creek. As she clung to a tree, a good Samaritan tried to bring her to safety before rescuers arrived but he, too, was caught up in the current. It took nearly five hours of grueling work for county firefighters to rescue both. Neither was seriously injured.

    Four hours may seem like a long wait for rescue, but the truth of the matter is that in a catastrophic disaster, first responders may not be able to get to you for days. That is why it is so important for citizens to heed watches and warnings issued by the National Weather Service and be prepared to survive on their own for at least 72 hours. GEMA can help.

    Ready Georgia is a statewide campaign from GEMA designed to educate and empower Georgians to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, pandemic outbreaks, potential terrorist attacks and other large-scale emergencies. Ready Georgia aims to prepare citizens for maintaining self-sufficiency for at least 72 hours following an emergency, and uses an interactive Web site, online community toolkit, television and radio advertising and public awareness media messaging to reach its audiences. For more information visit, find Ready Georgia on Facebook at or on YouTube at

    Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. Thanks!

    Lisa Janak Newman
    Public Information Officer
    Georgia Emergency Management Agency
    P.O. Box 18055
    Atlanta, Georgia 30316-0055
    direct: (404) 635-7019
    24-hour: (404) 635-7200
    fax: (404) 635-7205
    Visit for disaster preparedness information


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