Social media lifelines

Amy Gallagher explains how Hurricane Harvey demanded the use of uncommon military tools for the successful completion of search and rescue missions – social media
Collaboration, communications, coordination
Assigned by the Army National Guard (ANG) National Division, Texas Task Force One (TX-TF1)-Helicopter Search and Rescue Technician (HSART) Program Manager Brett Dixon served as liaison while co-ordinating National Guard assets and filtering SAR communications at the TX-TF1 headquarters, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services (TEEX) in College Station. “We received SAR requests from the public and local law enforcement agencies that were pushed to the state operations cells that got pushed to our headquarters,” explained Dixon. Members of the TXARNG had conducted joint swift-water rescue training with TX-TF1-HSART team rescue swimmers just three months previously, he added: “In June last year, the TXARNG and TX-TF1-HSART teams conducted joint training on the UH60 Blackhawk and the UH72 Lakota focused on helicopter rescue familiarisation and capability training with boat squads and rescue hoist training.” During Harvey, one swimmer was allocated for both aircraft types.
The initial collaboration between the TXARNG, TTF1-HSART, and FEMA marked the start of a government-based network of SAR and local emergency responders, including 911, explained Major Jordan Boyd, TXARNG, who co-ordinated SAR cells while communicating with joint air, water and ground interagency partners, including the US Coast Guard.
Posts, tweets, texts and calls
As Harvey graduated from a Category One to a Category Four hurricane on 24 August, the need to activate National Guard members from all over the US arose, according to Boyd. “Meanwhile, civilians began activating their smartphones,” he said. “Ultimately, we worked together to leverage digital communications to rescue thousands.” With multiple collaborators utilising a diverse matrix of communications technology, from satellite phones and radios to text messages and Facebook, rescuers had to think ‘outside the box’ to fight Harvey. “In addition, alerts for SAR requests popped up as notifications via Twitter as well,” said Boyd.  In fact, he added, FEMA created a hashtag for Twitter users (#rescueme) while other agencies created their own hashtags, including:
  • #txnarng 
  • #texasproud  
  • #Harvey 
  • #TexasNationalGuard
“The nation’s 24/7 access to digital communications led to immediate emergency connections and direct responses within emergency management offices where personnel, even aircrew members in flight, were saturated with calls, emails, posts, and text messages,” said Boyd. “But not without maximising social media. However, Harvey’s 131-mph wind speed eventually overpowered even the most up-to-date digital communications technology.” Digital devices weren’t always 100 per cent proof, he added.
“We had rescues where hoist rescue swimmers were rescuing victims hanging on to a pole with their clothes ripped off due to high winds and rapid floods,” said Boyd. “Those victims were unfortunately without their cell phones. However, SAR teams conducted 24/7 reconnaissance missions to identify those situations.” At the SAR Cell Communications Centre at TEEX College Station, the initial challenge was establishing the need for SAR with some of the call centre operators. However, when the call centres were downed, the public immediately fled to Facebook and Instagram. Normally, people dial 911, which is standard operating procedure. However, the 911 system was also overwhelmed by Harvey, in conjunction with inoperable landline phones and intermittent wireless connections.
Technology as a ‘game changer’
Captain Matt Geller of the Dallas Fire Department, a TX-TF1-HSART rescue swimmer, said his sister called him about a Facebook post she read: ‘77-year old female stuck in house, water crested over banks, rooftop flooding, can’t get on top, last ditch effort for help’. “My sister texted the address then I relayed the co-ordinates to the pilot who then entered into the UH60 Blackhawk Global Positioning System (GPS),” said Geller. “Although the non-stop water shedding was substantial, the woman was rescued and taken to a safe location.” The next day, Geller read in the Houston Chronicle that the woman had been reunited with her family. “That’s the ideal ‘mission executed’ scenario. However, we rarely get feedback from those we rescue,” he said. 
Cell phones were used as mobile 911 devices when the 911 service was unavailable. Geller added: “Technology and social media have changed everything. I used a recon GPS app on my iPhone which has all of the critical information. During one of the recon missions, I received a text, ‘Help, help, help, Houston area, not getting 911, no phones’.” According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) site, in general, about 70 per cent of today’s 911 calls are placed from wireless telephones; however, the cell site to the 911 caller’s specific location is not always feasible for rescue personnel to deliver assistance, the site explained.


GPS: mobile and installed systems 
In the early stages of Harvey and prior to the set-up of Harvey’s community Facebook page, civilian family members relayed Facebook pleas for help to military SAR personnel who then were able to utilise both mobile GPS apps, as well as helicopter installed GPS systems, explained Boyd. “With Harvey’s substantial wind speeds, cell service usage and connections were ‘hit or miss’, which ultimately generated multiple SAR alerts for the same location,” said Boyd. “The tower issues were creating havoc for cell users because different people had various service providers.” Fortunately, Boyd had two cell phones, with two different service providers. “With downed phone lines, call centres and cell towers, the volume of messages still poured in at our TX-TF1 headquarters and crew at an astonishing, rate,” he said. “We had to filter SAR requests prior to establishing the SAR cells, which required validation before redirecting assets to that cell. At one point, we had 200 texts in two hours.”
High-tech and high-touch meet ‘just-in-time’ delivery
The cell towers were overwhelmed with the data from texts downloaded during the night, added Boyd. “I was blown away when I asked the co-ordinators at our TX-TF1 headquarters, ‘How are you getting these mission requests?’ Initially, they said, ‘Facebook’.” The fact is everybody has a cell phone and relies on it 24/7. Boyd then explained how incoming digital messages and posts began infiltrating the guard crews directly. “Somewhat like ‘just-in-time’ delivery, the human-to-human connections via digital technology in real time was a first,” he said.
Boyd explained a typical SAR scenario: Once the operations cell at TX-TF1 headquarters received the request for SAR via phone or various social media outlets, it was validated then forwarded to the SAR crews. In numerous instances, the SAR crews were receiving texts or social media rescue requests directly from family members, friends, or third party contacts. From that point, the crews pushed the request to the SAR cell who then validated it and instructed the nearest SAR crew for tasking.
“At that point, due to the high operating/operations tempo environment, we assumed the mission was executed,” said Boyd. “However, text messages were coming in so quickly and had to be pushed out to the flight crews immediately. As Harvey’s strength overpowered standard communications and radio frequencies, we reverted to the simplest and quickest form of communication. At that point, we immediately went to combinations of different social media messages. More specifically, text messaging.”
Text threads and target groups
According to Dixon, group texting flight crews by creating text threads was a critical tool. “In the beginning, we only had time to quickly enter just the contact numbers due to the overwhelming number of incoming texts and emergent needs. Later, we created a contact for each person then pushed information out to the categorised thread based on need.” Crews were able to share locations through cell phone texts, he added.
“Text messages and messaging apps were the primary mode of communicating with multiple groups during Harvey,” said Dixon. “It proved to be faster and more efficient than any other mode.” Setting up target groups using GroupMe messaging app allowed us to co-ordinate cells so they could all see the discussions, he said.
Boyd agreed. “We expect to continue using messaging apps more efficiently in future missions,” he said. “Although the infrastructure isn’t always in place for text messaging, it was the most efficient way to communicate and connect with other agency teams and then to civilians for rescue.” It was almost too easy not to use texts, added Boyd.  
At the end of the 10-day siege, digital technology was leveraged to conduct 2,000 rescues.