Social media and collaborative technologies are becoming 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 now turn to social media to share information and connect with citizens during all phases of a crisis. Deploying these technologies, however, requires that responding agencies first understand their value, limitations and liabilities, and then adapt communication strategies and engagement methods accordingly.

Recognizing the need to address these challenges and support public safety, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate established the Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG). Members interface with their colleagues and other subject-matter experts to examine common first-responder issues — e.g., privacy, security, authenticity, accuracy and training — regarding the use of social-media tools.

Enlisted 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.

The mission of the VSMWG is to provide recommendations to the emergency preparedness and response community regarding the safe and sustainable use of social-media technologies before, during and after emergencies.

Today’s challenges are so complex that they require input and expertise from a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines and localities. For that reason, the working group also will assist in establishing the First Responder Communities of Practice, a “center of excellence” that will serve as a repository for social-media information relevant to the public-safety domain. The center’s members will represent a wide range of homeland-security and public-safety professionals, from all 50 states and across many disciplines. On the center’s website, members will be able to share their expertise with other members via e-mail and real-time chat, and receive updates on what their brethren are doing in the area of social media.

The "Make America Safer through Use of Social Media" community, which is located on the site, is the VSMWG’s virtual home. This community provides an open forum for members to share best practices regarding the effective implementation of social media into agency operations. Currently, practitioners from across the country are sharing use cases, policies, and examples. They also are 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.

Additional participation in the VSMWG community is encouraged. To learn more, view a growing repository of social media policies and tools, or participate in forward-thinking discussions with others engaged in this field, join First Responder Communities of Practice and the "Make America Safer through Social Media" community at https://Communities.FirstResponder.gov.

Please do so today. As I wrote above, it is a complex world in which we operate. All of us can use any and all help we can get.

Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, vice-chair of SAFECOM’s Executive Committee and serves on the DHS Social Media Working Group.