Denver, Colorado (CNN) — When word came of a huge explosion in San Bruno, California, FEMA chief Craig Fugate grabbed his cell phone and logged on to Twitter.
“I got out my little Android phone and went on Twitter and pulled up the grid to search for ‘explosion’ and got tweets coming out of the area,” he said.
After a few minutes he says he determined the gas explosion and ensuing fire, though horrible, was a localized event and wouldn’t spread to other communities.
“I got better situational awareness [from Twitter] before we got official word,” he said. “Four or five years ago I wouldn’t have gotten that quality of information.”
Fugate, aka @craigatFEMA on Twitter, is at the forefront of a movement to harness the power of social media during disasters.
“It is a way to get a sense for what people are seeing or hearing,” he explained. “Then I can see if it’s matching up with the response.”
Fugate’s openness to social media is unusual for a government official, according to Russ Johnson, who is working to make social media data more usable for first responders.
“Public safety officials are still trying to get their heads around social media. They are trying to catch up,” Johnson says. “What do you do when the social media knows more than you do?”
Johnson, who spent 32 years as a firefighter, now focuses on harnessing the power of social media for a government contractor called the Environmental Systems Research Institute.