DC's blizzard of 2010 has highlighted the main-streaming of social media as an emergency communication tool. In our house in AU Park, the battery-operated emergency radio was no where in sight despite the 30 hour power outage. Replacing it were two iPhones and twitter feeds. While twitter has generally been a vehicle for the masses, we followed a number of government and infrastructure authorities, who kept us informed on a minute by minute basis.
Not only were the feeds informative, but also two-way. While I got solid busy signals trying to notify PEPCO of a downed line behind our house, a twitter message to DDOT was met with a quick response:
The dialog with DDOTDC was extensive: residents tweeted information on problem areas, sent pictures of unplowed streets, and DDOTDC acknowledged resident concern by passing information to and from the DDOT snow response command center. Other District agencies provided excellent information on bus routes, school closings, and more.
The tweeting was also valuable on a smaller scale. Broad Branch Market twittered hourly updates on the status of the store and the availability of high-demand blizzard items (e.g., milk and toilet paper). zBurger announced their $1 "snowburger" to the local inhabitants and got a tremendous response.
While the ability of officials to be so responsive on a one-to-one basis may be diluted as the volume of messages increases, there is no doubt that social media will serve an increasingly critical role in emergency and community communications.