An EM Lesson from NASA

August 17, 2012 in

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last week or two, you've likely noticed that Curiosity has landed on Mars. Curiosity is NASA's latest Mars Rover designed to look for signatures of life on the Red Planet. It's quite a different mission than Shuttles throttling through space, but it is still consistent exploration into the beyond.

A little history...

NASA was established in early 1958 in direct correlation to The Cold War with the Soviet Union. Perhaps the heyday of NASA was during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations when Astronauts traveled to the moon. But the nature of the world slowly changed, even in the 1960's, major television news failed to cover launches and landings unless there was some degree of unforeseen danger. Apollo 13 is an excellent example of the lack of media coverage until a crisis erupts.

Move into the Shuttle program, which began in 1981 and ended in 2011 with the final landing of Shuttle Atlantis. In between there were several launches, landings and heart wrenching accidents. Kids applied to Space Camps and eagerly studied the images of the Hubble Telescope, but for the most part the many NASA programs progressed in some degree of obscurity.

Enter Social Technologies...

NASA is the king of creative social media. They are a bureaucratic, federal agency, yet some how find the way to be real, transparent and gain support via new media solutions. Mainstream TV doesn't broadcast landings or launches anymore - gone are the days of the Apollo missions, yet more and more people are intrigued, interested and dedicated to NASA's success. Curiosity was named in a social competition, by 12 year old Clara Ma, they have educated and made a fans for life with various launch and landing Tweetups, Astronauts have logged into Foursquare from space, and absolutely breathtaking photographs from the likes of @AstroRon have been tweeted from the International Space Station, to name just a few.

Social has undeniably impacted NASA. Stephanie Schierholz, NASA's first Social Media Manager, notes, "The real value of NASA's use of social media can be seen in the level of engagement and the communities that form around them. It is called social media because our fans and followers have a reasonable expectation that their questions may be answered and their comments heard. By responding and interacting with them, NASA has the opportunity to educate, inform, and inspire."

Can EM learn from NASA...

If you're a space nerd, like me, having real-time, personal access to all things NASA is pretty damn cool. But what's the practical application for the field of Emergency Management? While watching the live UStream of Curiosity's landing (here's a play by play), it occurred to me that the operations center looks largely like an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and while we may hesitate to open up EOC operations to the world via live streaming video, we could easily open portions of our work to better educate and prepare the public we serve.

In the previous blog, SFDEM told Twitter followers, We Hear You. We lifted the kimono a bit to explain why we do what we do and how we will try better to bridge the gap between information and overwhelm. It's a first step, but it cannot stop there. If emergency management, as a field, desires to create a culture of preparedness and build resilience it has to be more than simple one-way messaging. NASA cannot expect to create fans of space exploration by simply showing the latest launch, photo or tragedy on television and likewise emergency management cannot assume that the images of the latest disaster, or directions to make a kit or pick a meeting place will create a more resilient and responsive community.

NASA has proven that it takes interaction. Concerted, direct conversations, unique, engaging opportunities to educate, inform and inspire generations, both old and new, to the wonders of science and space. Can the field of emergency management do the same for preparedness and resilience?

Alicia D. Johnson is the Resilience and Recovery Manager at SFDEM. She is a strong advocate for innovation in disaster and human resilience. She can be reached on Twitter – @UrbanAreaAlicia.