JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The Joint Base Lewis-McChord community was reminded of the power inherent in social media sites like Facebook in sharing timely information during a massive winter storm that swept across Western Washington last week.

Thanks to the constant updates and sharing of information through the posts and comments on JBLM's Facebook site, thousands of Soldiers, Airmen, civilian government employees, family members and the general civilian population were kept abreast of installation work curtailments, road conditions, power outages and road closures.

The JBLM Public Affairs Office posted updates and breaking news almost hourly about everything from matters of convenience to survival -- from power service in the housing area on McChord Field to the hours of operation of the commissaries and Exchanges. The real-time medium allowed the PAO to respond to comments posted by the JBLM community.

Facebook is a communication tool that allows the installation leadership and key communicators to speak directly to their internal and external audiences in their homes.

"Now that we have Facebook and other forms of social media, it's an opportunity to tell people in real time, in a medium they are comfortable with and use a lot, the information and things they need to know to help them with their lives," said J.C. Mathews, JBLM public affairs officer.
Before the storm, the JBLM Facebook page had received about 6,700 "likes" in the year of its existence.

Now, the number is approaching 10,000. Gaining 3,000 in less than a week is unprecedented for the installation. Though the page wasn't specifically intended to be a hub for emergency information, the Facebook page performed an important role for thousands during the nearly weeklong crisis. Now the page can return to keeping its JBLM audience informed, communicating the installation's mission, vision and values, and providing a robust feedback system that gets information from the bottom to the top so that commanders can make the right decisions that help the most people.
"Social media is a way for us to talk in real-time to those who want to talk to us and give them information that they want and need, and that the command thinks is important,"Mathews said. "I think the evidence is in -- it works."

Feedback to the Facebook site made it apparent that its audience had grown during the storm. A woman in Ireland who has relatives serving in the Army at JBLM made it a point to thank the garrison staff for updates and keeping concerned relatives informed around the world. Other comments came from people in the U.S., following the JBLM site for current information about their relatives stationed at the base.

More than 2,400 comments were left throughout the week on nearly 80 status updates, averaging nearly 30 comments per post. The majority of comments came from spouses worried about their active-duty loved ones driving on the icy roads or clearing fallen tree limbs from unit areas. As comments came in, PAO personnel relayed those concerns to JBLM leadership.

"Facebook painted a picture (and allowed me to paint) a picture for the commander," the PAO said.
Once the power went out for most of Pierce and Thurston counties as well as JBLM, installation leaders responded by organizing and outfitting warming centers at several Lewis-McChord fitness centers, providing residents cots and hot showers in heated facilities. Army Community Services Director Jo Dempsey noticed that as people were finding out about the various services provided by agencies like hers, those Facebook pages began to be accessed more.

"What was great about Facebook during the storm was that we (JBLM pages and organizations) could link between each other," Dempsey said. "Someone may like the ACS page but not know about the JBLM page but now they do."

While installation leaders were pleased with the enhanced communications facilitated by Facebook, one incident reminded them of the responsibilities that come with the decentralized medium. Someone unauthorized posted on Jan. 18 that it would take four days for the power to come back on at McChord Field, forcing the PAO staff to react quickly to the misinformation with a clarifying post:

"Someone posted below that it could take up to four days ... we can say with confidence that is WAY off the mark," it said.

Another individual posting without checking facts erroneously stated that a C-17 airplane had crashed on McChord Field.

Mathews emphasized that upsetting information involving operational security should not be aired in a public venue. Before sharing any information, servicemembers must use their chains of command to report these types of information, and family members can go to their family readiness group, chains of command, or inform the garrison, I Corps or 62nd Airlift Wing public affairs offices.

"We aren't trying to censor what people say and do," Mathews said "The intent is to try and answer the question, provide the accurate information and quash a rumor without that rumor being multiplied again and again and does a disservice to the public."

Despite the few unfounded comments, the Facebook page proved its value during the storm to the PAO.

"Social media was something I viewed as my son's generation," Mathews said, "but I'm a believer now. After this week, I hope everybody else is too."