In April 2010, the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 people and spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As tar balls and oil sheen washed up on shorelines, public health departments in the Gulf region turned their attention to monitoring the health effects of the spill, particularly among people using beaches and individuals involved in clean-up efforts.
- A surge of inquiries and social media reports. After BP announced it would pay claims to people affected by the oil spill, agencies received numerous reports from people regarding oil-related health problems and contamination of fishing boats, beaches, and seafood. Stories of health effects and environmental contamination appeared on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
- A need to sift valid reports from rumors. Media coverage of oil-related health effects was widespread, and health agencies had to mediate between all the health-related information that was publicized and the valid reports that required their attention.
The Florida Department of Health developed standard operating guidelines to determine the reliability and accuracy of reported information and rumors during a disaster.
Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the incident response team at the Florida Department of Health used a process developed during its response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic to investigate health-related rumors circulating in the press and social media. Rumor monitoring was necessary in order to prevent unsubstantiated public fear and any situations that could pose a danger for emergency and clean-up personnel.
The process involved public information officers in a Media Monitoring Unit at the Florida Department of Health tracking and assessing health-related rumors stemming from various sources and then reporting their findings to planning and command staff working at a Joint Information Center (JIC). The Media Monitoring Unit comprised two roles:
- An information triage analyst gathered local information, including anything that might be considered a rumor, by monitoring mainstream social media sources, including blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google, and delivering any information s/he found to a rumor report analyst.
- A rumor report analyst prioritized the rumors to determine which information needed immediate attention and developed a report of circulating public information to be shared with command staff.
The rumor report analyst used a coding system to prioritize each piece of information and convey to the planning and command staff the importance and urgency of responding to various rumors. The coding system rated each rumor on its perceived reliability and accuracy, and the analyst determined whether each rumor could be considered routine or required immediate attention. A rumor control report providing details about the time the rumor was received by the Unit, its original source, the action taken to address the rumor, and each rumor's status was presented daily to the incident response team.
What made this practice possible?
- Much of the process was developed during the Florida Department of Health's response to H1N1, during which public information officers had to track and respond to rumors regarding transmission, virulence, and vaccine safety and availability.
- During the 16-week-long Deepwater Horizon response, the process conserved state resources by decreasing the number of public information staff needed to track and address rumors by 50% and decreasing the number of staff hours needed to monitor sources by 80%. The Florida Department of Health estimates that this efficient use of time and personnel saved state taxpayers $70,560 over four months.
- The Deepwater Horizon After Action Report identified the rumor monitoring process as an innovative solution that played a vital role during the response.
- The process was given a Florida Davis Productivity Award for saving state tax money and conserving the time of state employees.