With a storm brewing in mid-January, Herb Simmons wanted to make sure people were ready for it.
As director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency, Simmons’ job is to help people prepare for the worst. With an ice storm predicted to hit the metro-east and linger over the area for a few days, Simmons knew exactly how he’d let people know what was going on. He turned to Facebook and utilized one of the social media giant’s newer tools — Facebook Live. Throughout the duration of the event, Simmons and others on his staff gave live video updates to the nearly 19,000 people who follow the page.
“We need to get out in front of this because in December that storm came in and took us all by surprise,” Simmons said from the EMA’s nerve center in downtown Belleville. “People were stranded. It was nobody’s fault and Mother Nature threw us a curve. We took the warnings on this one and got out in front of it.”
Each time Simmons sat in on updates with National Weather Service officials, he fired up Facebook to let the people know what was happening. Throughout the three-day event, EMA officials posted eight videos. Simmons said those videos reached nearly 700,000 people. During the ice storm, the group’s growing Facebook page had 1.1 million views, Simmons said.
“People were so appreciative,” he said. “We tried to answer everyone’s questions.”
A new way to communicate
With more than one billion users worldwide, Facebook is an easy way to reach people. When he took over as EMA director five years ago, Simmons made communicating through Facebook a priority for the organization.
“I wanted to make a way to keep our citizens aware of what’s going on throughout the county,” Simmons said.
We understand that today’s citizen expects an answer. We want the people to know what we’re doing.
Capt. Timothy Tyler, Illinois State Police
Having information readily available on Facebook ran counter to what Simmons had experienced early in his career. He has been in the emergency management business for 35 years and has a law enforcement background as well. When he started, the thought was that that less the public knew, the better they were.
“It was taboo, you don’t tell anybody anything,” he said.
Capt. Timothy Tyler, commander of Illinois State Police District 11 and District 18, says law enforcement can’t get away with keeping quiet in today’s social media age. The longer law enforcement stays quiet, the easier it is for the rumor mill to run wild, he said.
“We understand that today’s citizen expects an answer,” Tyler said. “Even if it is ‘This is a preliminary investigation and this is all we have right now.’ We want the people to know what we’re doing.”
District 11, which is based in Collinsville, and District 18, which is based in Litchfield, have their own separate Facebook pages. Neither has the audience that the St. Clair County EMA page has, but they are following the EMA’s lead in informing the public. If there is a crash on a major road, Illinois State Police will post about it on their Facebook page.
“If there is a travel advisory or a major crash, we put the word out so you can take an alternate route and get to work on time,” Tyler said.
Our (emergency) calls have decreased somewhat by us putting things out there on Facebook. We used to have people dial 911 to ask where whatever fire department was going to.
Herb Simmons, director of St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency
Simmons and his staff constantly update the EMA Facebook page with various incidents happening throughout St. Clair County. They will post about traffic crashes, fires and other incidents so that people stay in the know. Keeping their page filled with fresh information has had an added benefit, Simmons said.
“Our (emergency) calls have decreased somewhat by us putting things out there on Facebook,” Simmons said. “We used to have people dial 911 to ask where whatever fire department was going to. We don’t want to hamper any investigations, but if we happen to hear something on the scanner, we’ll let people know about it.”
All on board
The majority of law enforcement agencies in the metro-east have some kind of social media presence. Some police departments, including Belleville, Fairview Heights and Swansea, use Facebook as a way to distribute press releases.
O’Fallon police utilize their Facebook page to highlight upcoming events, while the Illinois State Police also use their page to promote work being done by their troopers in the community.
Area fire departments are also active. The Belleville Fire Department is one of the few public safety agencies that utilizes Twitter in real time. The department’s public information officer will use his Twitter feed, @BFDPIO, to take followers to the scene of various incidents that firefighters respond to throughout the city as well as any training exercises or other public service they may do.
If past results are indicative of future gains, social media use by public safety agencies should only grow. Simmons said the St. Clair County EMA Facebook Page reached 3.6 million people in its first year. In 2016, posts made by the group reached 18.5 million people.
“We’ve helped people find their lost pets,” Simmons said. “We’ve used it for missing person’s reports. It’s a great tool in our toolbox that we can use.”