Kathleen Hessert

Kathleen Hessert, CEO Sports Media Challenge

In the social networking world, Kathleen Hessert is perhaps best known as the Charlotte-based media consultant who taught Shaquille O’Neal how to tweet.

She must like hefty projects. Her latest: help teach the U.S. Navy, the Red Cross and the United Nations how social networking channels might help them save lives during natural disasters.

Her social media analytics firm, Buzz Manager, is participating Friday and Saturday in Exercise24, an international disaster preparedness training exercise that simulates what might happen if an earthquake struck the California coast, triggering an oil spill and tsunami.

Buzz Manager, which can track tweets and Facebook posts about a specific subject, will direct mock calls for help and citizen comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to the appropriate organizations.

To avoid confusion, Hessert said, Twitter has agreed to put out an advance message to alert social network users that any apocalyptic-sounding tweets are part of a test, not a real disaster. Each tweet will include the words “Test. Not real,” and will include links to Web sites where people can learn more.

She said it only makes sense to test how new communications channels like social networks and cloud computing would work during a disaster. The recent earthquake in Haiti and other emergencies show the general public is already turning to them to send calls for help or share information.

“They can communicate quickly through these means, and they expect that the authorities are listening and will take appropriate action,” Hessert said.

But that may not always be the case. Last week, about 80 people from around the country came to Charlotte for a conference designed to teach emergency first responders how to use social media. Mark Basnight, the Charlotte Fire Department official who organized the conference, said many public safety agencies are slow to adopt social networks.

Officials from Buzz Manager attended. Hessert said police, fire and other emergency response agencies often aren’t sure they can trust text messages, tweets or Facebook posts to deliver accurate messages in life-or-death situations.

Why bother, some ask. They’ve got 911 for emergency communications.

Exercise24, which is being coordinated by San Diego State University, hopes to figure out how to best add Web 2.0 to the communications mix.

Eric Frost, director of the university’s Visualization Lab, which studies disasters and responses to them, said the one thing first responders always want during emergencies is real-time information. Half of Facebook’s 500 million members log on during any given day, he noted, putting a potential gold mine of possible tipsters and information at authorities’ fingertips.

Part of the goal of the exercise is to determine how much information their systems could handle from social networks without breaking under the load.

“There’s no disaster tool in the world, no government tool in the world, that has that kind of capability,” Frost said.

The exercise will use not only Facebook and Twitter, but also cloud computing, Ustream TV and Skype to funnel information about the mock earthquake to the right people.

Contact Eric Frazier at 704-358-5145, at efrazier@charlotteobserver.com, or at @ericfraz on Twitter.

Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/09/20/1705353/disaster-response-one-tweet-at.html#ixzz12MpFD75N