At 7 a.m. on Oct. 29, 2012, Emily Rahimi already had an inkling that she was in for a long day. In anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, New York City officials had closed her subway stop, so she hitched a ride with a co-worker to her job at the city fire department. “I expected to be here pretty late,” says the 36-year-old social media manager behind @FDNY, the fire department’s Twitter account. Rahimi didn’t go home until 6 p.m. the following night.
In that 36-hour span, Rahimi became a one-woman response team for city residents stranded by Sandy, people who needed emergency assistance and couldn’t get through to 911 dispatch. One man tweeted that his father, who had suffered a heart attack weeks earlier, had been unable to evacuate when the storm reached land. Now water was rushing into their apartment. “He said they were standing on the furniture,” Rahimi recalls. Things got worse when much of the city lost power. One person tweeted a photo of four orange medical syringes that needed to be refrigerated. Someone else asked about locating a portable generator for his friend on a ventilator. “Knowing the stories behind these tweets,” says Rahimi, “knowing how scared they were—made you want to help them.”
On a typical day, Rahimi posts a handful of tweets about fires, general safety tips, rescue stories and other timely information about her department. She usually instructs people not to use Twitter as a replacement for calling 911 or 311. During the storm, however, many phone networks went down, and the callers who were able to get through overwhelmed the system: By 8 p.m., the city’s 911 line was receiving 10,000 calls every half hour.
Amid the commotion, Rahimi took on the role of emergency coordinator, connecting dispatchers with people who weren’t getting through by phone. She also reached out to everyone who tweeted, calming them and letting them know that help was on the way. All the while, she posted about the storm and corrected misinformation. “Rumors were spreading extremely quickly,” she says. “A lot of news reports were extremely inaccurate.”
Rahimi started out in magazine publishing in New York, but rethought her career following the Sept. 11 attacks. She volunteered for the Red Cross and Salvation Army at the World Trade Center site, delivering food and coffee to firefighters on overnight shifts. “I just loved the culture and camaraderie,” she says. In 2005, she joined the fire department and convinced her superiors to let her create a Facebook page and Twitter account. Today @FDNY broadcasts to more than 79,000 followers, perhaps the largest audience of any municipal fire agency in the country.
Hurricane Sandy was not the first time that emergency responders used social media during a disaster, says Jenny Sokatch, a program specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “But it was the first time,” Sokatch says, that Twitter “was used on such a large scale and got national attention.” In a natural disaster when thousands of lives were at stake, it was an innovation that truly made a difference.