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Group to Plan Crisis Communications

The Emergency Preparedness Advisory Commission subcommittee will determine how social media and other tools can relay information.

The city's Emergency Preparedness Advisory Commission decided in a meeting Monday night to form a subcommittee that will determine how communication tools can be best utilized during a crisis.

This group will study the use of social media and other communication tools, said Chairman Alan Benson. He will serve on the subcommittee alongside Hermosa Beach Police Department Chaplain Gila Katz.

"It would be interesting to get all of our volunteer groups together and talking amongst each other about various forms of communication," said Ken Hartley, founder of the Hermosa Beach Amateur Radio Association.

At Monday's meeting, commissioners discussed the roles that Twitter, Facebook and text messaging could play during a natural disaster or other citywide emergency. They agreed that additional help was needed.

"It's worth it to have a subcommittee to look at this more closely and make a report… to coordinate a volunteer emergency operation plan," Benson said.

He added that while he was attending a conference sponsored by the Red Cross, he saw a video about volunteer group Crisis Commons that illustrated the way cell phones were used to save lives in Haiti after the devastating January earthquake.

Even though voice communication networks shut down, because so many phone calls were being placed at once, text messaging remained unaffected.

"So one thing that kept working in Haiti were cell phones and texting on cell phones," Benson said. "They were texting out in French or Creole, and as these texts went out on Twitter, it was automatically translated in English."

"How do we coordinate volunteers who could do a lot of work out of their houses that when a disaster hits, they could coordinate?" he asked.

Commissioner Tracy Hopkins said she believes Facebook could be used similarly to directly inform residents of emergency situations.

"Just today we had an experience where I got an alert from the Torrance police," she said as an example. "There was a suspected burglar that was loose and we had to cut off certain areas… Sure enough, one of my Facebook contacts said, 'Oh, I heard the helicopters, but I didn't know what was going on.' "

But Katz said that not all Hermosans will feel comfortable checking online social media for emergency help, especially the older members of the community.

"I think all of this media is wonderful, but there are plenty of people who don't know how to use Facebook or Twitter," she said. "We need to build up a backup system."

The advisory commission's subcommittee will not only design a backup system but also coordinate how that system would be used alongside social media, commissioners decided.

Benson added that the subcommittee should not dismiss the benefits of CodeRED as communication plans are developed. CodeRED is an automated telephone system that calls residents with emergency notifications during a crisis.

"I don't know how many cities have that," Benson said. "That's a great extra layer" of protection.

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