WhatsApp now has over 990 million registered users. It’s free to use and has lots of potential uses for communicators. Here’s a great example of how the app was used in a recent emergency situation.
by Alan Ferguson and Mark Conway
Late on Tuesday afternoon, 7 June, dark clouds descended over Bedfordshire. Very dark. Then came thunder…lightening….and rain. Lots and lots of rain. I mean it chucked it down.
It quickly became apparent that one of our major towns, Dunstable, was taking the brunt of the rain, with heavy flooding in less than an hour.
Our Emergency Planning Manager, Mark Conway was quickly on the scene – actually, that’s not true, he was at home. He’d collected his kids from school when the downpour started. He didn’t grab his keys. He didn’t rush to his car. He got this phone out and kicked off some key emergency communications using WhatsApp.
WhatsApp – What’s That?
For those who haven’t used it, WhatsApp allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS and is available across a variety of mobile devices.
Changing pace of communications
Mark has worked at home and far afield on major emergencies, joining in the efforts following the Nepal earthquake and at home - working during the Buncefield fuel depot blast in Hemel Hempstead in December 2005.
Using technology to communicate then was a lot slower, as Mark remembers: “Everything was done by phone, with the odd teleconference and email. Email was great, but then it was only accessible at a desktop. Blackberry’s were around but not every one had them. We could text people, but it was only to individuals.”
Embracing new technology
Technology has moved on in the past 10 years and recently Mark started using WhatsApp to communicate during emergencies.
This started almost by accident. Mark set up a WhatsApp family group to arrange social events, before then setting it up within his team as a trial to keep each other posted during small scale emergencies.
This worked so well that he’s now set up multiple groups to communicate with in times of emergency.
The advantages Mark highlights are clear to see:
- incredibly popular free mobile app – people are using it personally so the training involved to use it for this purpose is minimal
- super fast way of emergency call out – previously it would have taken hours to mobilise our Emergency Volunteer Group. It’s now minutes, reducing the amount of phone calls by hours
- ‘mobile’ in every sense – there’s no need to call a group meeting in one location which wastes valuable time in the early hours of an emergency situation
- two way multi-media communications – text, image and video content can all be shared
- it maintains a log of all communications that can be saved and kept as a record
- can set up multiple groups – the group set up for this week’s emergency had a different set of people involved so Mark set this up, adding people on the go as different teams in the council joined the operation
Mark does also recognise that there are some negatives to using this too:
- not great on a desktop or iPad
- some volunteers who didn’t want to or are not confident in using it
- risk of over-communication – what might be deemed high importance and worthy of sharing by one person, could be a distraction for 30 others in the group
But overall, Mark feels the positives outweigh the negatives: “During this week’s flooding 75% of my time was spent communicating using WhatsApp. I didn’t visit the main area, as we had our teams on the ground constantly updating me every few minutes with text and images to go with it.”
The view from Communications
Whilst Mark’s efforts were focussed on his emergency teams, we also had the advantage in that the Communications team are able to track real-time updates and communicate the latest information and advice to our residents and stakeholders in a matter of minutes.
Being alerted as soon as something starts to escalate means the Communications team can also get prepared; start monitoring social media conversations and sharing information.
Being able to ask questions and get an immediate response from someone who is at the scene really helps to make sure our messages are accurate and our advice is timely.
Having these virtual conversations, clarifying confusion and supporting each other adds to the sense of team too. Anyone can shout out for additional help through WhatsApp and any of us can respond.
Sharing your experiences
If you’ve used WhatsApp or other similar social sharing technology, then we’d love to hear about your experiences. You can contact Mark Conway – Emergency Planning Manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Alan Ferguson – Web Manager (email@example.com).