How a Neighborhood Facebook Group Can Keep You Safe in an Emergency

Family Matters on 04.06.12
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Photo: Laura St. John

If you think that Facebook is just an addictive, time-sucking waste, think again. Last week, my home was part of the 900+ evacuated homes from a deadly Colorado wildfire that killed 3 people. To my surprise, where did we all turn for help, updates, and support? Yep -- you guessed it: Facebook.

Months ago, my neighbor Leslie set up a private Facebook page for my neighborhood, originally intended as just a fun way to promote a sense of community. Last Monday, a typical post like "Can someone watch my pet for spring break?" turned into "We just got a mandatory evacuation notice -- did you?" This was followed by 31 comments of my neighbors asking each other about "What do we do?" or "Are you evacuating your horses now?" -- making sure families and pets were accounted for. As the days unfolded, it turned out to be the most valuable resource for updates and private discussions including neighbors I have never even met in person.

A Faster Way to Spread the Word

The reverse 911 didn't work properly in the deadly fire that hit Colorado last week. More than 10% of homes who should have gotten the evacuation notice, didn't. Many got it too late. What did work was real people posting live footage and comments -- instant Facebook posts including mobile photos and videos of what was unfolding around us. This was the most accurate way to know what was truly going on. It didn't include any hype or distortion from news or media. For example, this YouTube video was one of the first videos I saw of a father, mother and son barely escaping the fire.

Listening to the fear in the son's voice in that video was way more effective than a static text order to evacuate. And it spread quickly, like the fire.

How to Set Up a Private Neighborhood Facebook Page

Take the first step to safety for your neighborhood, and organize a private Facebook page. You can do it in 3 simple steps.

  1. Create the Group. When you're on your Facebook page, check out the left side of your page. There is a section on the middle to click "Create Group."
  2. Make It Private. Check off the "Secret" button so only members see the group, who's in it, and what members post. Other people can't find it even if they search for it.
  3. Invite Your Neighbors. Even if you don't know all your neighbors personally, I'm pretty sure you can find them on Facebook.

If you feel funny inviting people you don't really know, tell my story: that a neighborhood in Colorado set up a private neighborhood Facebook page for fun and it turned out to be one of our most effective tools in times of emergency. Even if you don't have wildfires, nearly all parts of the country suffer from some sort of natural disaster.

If that's not enough, share this post from one of the new neighbors who just moved in that we invited just in time to our private group:

We are on Spring Break vacation with our family and having just moved to the neighborhood. We have been able to stay connected to the community and get up to date information from people that are still there....even ppl we have yet to meet personally. Having this Facebook page has provided a real time tutorial on how our mountain community reacts to a crisis like this. It has also given us the information from an insider's perspective, beyond what our county has posted on their site. Thank you all so much for your posts. They have been informative and have given us peace of mind.

Looking back a week later, I grew a newfound respect for Facebook: It's not just a way to chat with high school friends. Not only did it bring my neighborhood closer together, but I feel like I can put more trust in it. (I'll admit, I watched the movie twice, and I don't think Mark Zuckerberg will let Facebook go down -- ever.)

But as good as all this technology may or may not be, there's nothing like following your own gut instinct. If you feel unsafe - don't sit at home with your computer or  phone watching Facebook posts, and don't wait for a reverse 911 - just get out. It's a decision you'll never regret.

I'm relieved now to see that my neighborhood Facebook posts are back to normal, like yesterday's mobile photo of "Whose dog is this?" and today's pot luck invitation from me to all my neighbors -- so some of us can finally meet in person!


Laura St. John is co-creator of Discovery Kids Puterbugs, a program that inspires children to  reach their potential by harnessing the power of the latest technology. Classes for kids 8 years old and younger are offered both online and in over 700 US locations through a network of entrepreneurs who bring the classes to their area. For more information on licensing the program, check out Laura's latest webinar, or register for the next webinar.

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