How the CRC is Using Twitter to Save Lives

When most people think about the uses of social media many would not even imagine the role it could play in saving a life. The Canadian Red Cross has recognized that function and is working every day to better utilize digital media to provide medical relief during natural disasters and in conflict zones around the world.

In light of the widespread flooding in southern Alberta Thursday, the threat of a natural disaster hits a lot closer to home for many Canadians. The CBC reports Calgary officials say as many as 100,000 people could be forced from their homes.

The influence of social media is undeniable in the case of disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011. When so many lines of communication were down twitter feeds painted a picture of the destruction and suffering on the ground. The Guardian streamed a live blog of the rescue mission in Haiti and CNN used iReports to report from the ground as quickly as possible. During Hurricane Sandy the Red Cross reports there were 80,000-140,000 twitter mentions with mentions of the Red Cross alone coming in 500 at a time every 20 minutes.

When Marie and I attended a digital media event at the Red Cross training grounds recently, those undergoing training for emergency response deployment had no idea there would be a mass-casualty simulation once they settled in to bed for the night; eager to sleep after a long day of training outdoors.

We were instructed not to tweet anything about the surprise. Many of the medical professionals being trained are active on Twitter.  Canadian Red Cross Media Strategist Karen Snider says many of the trainees are encouraged to be on the site, as it is becoming an increasingly important part of communication in the field.

We started off our day touring the impressive portable hospital housed within tents. There was a water purification system, generators, hospital beds, and medical equipment, which is pre-sterilized here in Canada.

Hossam Elsharkowi, Head of Emergency Operations for the CRC, says a field assessment team goes in after a natural disaster occurs and lets the Emergency Response Unit know what the needs are before deployment. Once in the field, Elsharkowi says the goal is to set up the tents and start surgery within 12 hours. The hospital is designed to be self-sufficient for about one month.

“The hospital can provide care for up to 300 patients a day,” says Elsharkowi. “We cannot treat everyone in a disaster setting but we do our best for the most.” The hospital deploys within 24-48 hours after disaster occurs. Although the program is fairly new and the first of its’ kind in North America it has already deployed to Haiti, Chad and Sierra Leone because of cholera outbreaks in those countries

By the end of the day we were all chatting excitedly in a room unknown to the trainees, while actors were painted with fake blood and Bonnie, a delightful lady who has been with the CRC for over 30 years, assigned injuries to the participants.

When the time came, volunteer victims, some of them former trainees, waited. Hushed. All of a sudden, the actors started running towards the tents, those in vehicles were honking their horns. The actors screamed and cried convincingly as the emergency response team rushed out, snapping in to their role to provide medical relief to the actors. Although I knew it was a simulation witnessing such a scene was jarring. I never imagined finding myself in an emergency situation until this moment.

According to an Ipsos survey called Social Media and Emergencies conducted in 2012, 66 per cent of Canadians say they have not taken steps to prepare themselves for an emergency. The report also shows that 54 per cent of Canadians say they would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe in an emergency; a number that is sure to grow as more and more people take to Twitter and Facebook.

The Canadian Red Cross currently uses social networks to share updates, educate the public on how to prepare for emergency situations and respond to questions from affected communities. However, analysis of geological data and statistics behind tweets in the cases of emergencies will further improve the way this crucial program provides relief to victims.

You can click here to volunteer/donate to the Canadian Red Cross.

I live to write, create, and tell stories. I'm a freelance journalist with a strong curiosity about the way online culture translates into our everyday lives. I drink too much coffee, shop a little too much and invest way too much emotion into fictional characters. What can I say? I live in extremes.

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