Fire Technology: Virtual Collaboration: Communities of Practice

Social media and collaborative technologies have become critical components of emergency preparedness, response and recovery. From the international response efforts after major tsunamis and earthquakes to hurricane recovery in U.S. cities, officials are turning to social media to share information and connect with citizens during all phases of a crisis.

Deploying these technologies, however, requires that responding agencies update their communication strategies and engagement methods. This column will outline several ways that the fire service can learn more about the various virtual collaboration resources available and how to become actively involved in the discussion.

• DHS Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG) – Recognizing the need to address these challenges, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) established the Virtual Social Media Working Group. VSMWG members interface with their colleagues and other subject matter experts in academia, private, public and non-profit sectors around common first-responder issues regarding the use of social media tools (e.g., privacy, security, authenticity and training).

The mission of the VSMWG is to provide recommendations to the emergency preparedness and response community on the safe and sustainable use of social media technologies before, during and after emergencies, as well as assist in establishing the First Responder Communities of Practice social media community as a “center of excellence” for current social media information relevant to the public safety domain.

Drawn from a cross-section of tribal, territorial, federal, state and local responders from across the United States, VSMWG members are establishing and collecting best practices and solutions that can be leveraged by responders throughout the nation’s emergency response community.

• DHS First Responder Communities of Practice: A Virtual Collaboration Space – Today’s challenges are so complex that they require input and expertise from a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines and localities. Time constraints and limited resources make it difficult to schedule face-to-face meetings, especially when travel is required. Furthermore, organizations often lack the time or capacity to learn, implement or maintain new and quickly-changing technologies.

On First Responder Communities of Practice, staying connected while traveling or in the field is simple; you can join communities that interest you or start your own community related to a specific topic or project. DHS provides support in getting started, building membership and engaging community members. There is no longer a need to search the Internet to connect with peers. The conversations are already happening on the premiere cross-disciplinary collaboration platform built specifically for the public safety and homeland security community.

Members of First Responder Communities of Practice represent a wide range of homeland security and public safety professionals, from all 50 states and across many disciplines. Site members can maintain their profiles with photos, biographic information, certifications and education, and expertise and connect with site members to receive updates on others’ activities within the site. The site also provides other communication channels such as email and real-time chat.

The “Make America Safer through Use of Social Media” community, located on the First Responder Communities of Practice (, is the virtual home to the VSMWG’s efforts. This community provides an open forum for members to collaborate on the effective implementation of social media into agency operations. Currently, practitioners from across the country are sharing use cases, best practices, policies and examples, as well as posing questions, having discussions and making comments using the community’s communication and collaboration tools, such as a wiki, blogs, forums, shared bookmarks and messaging.

To learn more about the First Responder Communities of Practice, view a growing repository of social media policies and tools or participate in forward-thinking discussions with others engaged in this field, visit Other communities include 911 Community of Practice, Virtual USA, Make America Safer through Social Media, National Wildland Fire Coordination Group, Public Safety Geographic Information Systems, Search and Rescue Working Group, Decontamination, Disaster Resilient University, Sport and Stadium Security, Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response, and Type III All Hazards Incident Management Team.

Who can join First Responder Communities of Practice? First responders and members of the following groups engaged in homeland security and related fields: government employees, government-sponsored contractors, government-sponsored academia and government-sponsored citizens.

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