Jeannette Sutton believes people are resilient in the face of disaster, and she’s spent her professional life studying responses to trauma and technology for dealing with natural and manmade disasters.
She particularly focuses on social media during disasters and says her work is important to help agencies coordinate responses and save lives.
Now a senior research scientist at the UCCS Trauma Health and Hazards Center, her research is funded through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security.
Sutton holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she specialized in disaster research. She also received a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.
But even Sutton needs a break from disaster, and during those times, she can be found on her yoga mat, riding single-track trails and climbing the Manitou Incline.
What drew you to studying hazards and disasters?
Prior to returning to graduate school, I worked with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office victim services response to Columbine High School in 1999. This event helped to shape my perspective on disasters, crises and the community healing that occurs in response. So as my second year of graduate school began, and we witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center, I knew that my studies would once again lead me down the path of trauma, but this time from a researcher’s perspective.
I conducted my dissertation research on the World Trade Center attacks and was soon thereafter introduced to the study of new technologies for emergency management. Since 2007 I’ve conducted numerous studies on the uses of social media for disaster communications. Ultimately, what drew me to this area of research has been a curiosity for understanding human resiliency. I’m most interested in understanding and influencing how we communicate, organize, and overcome obstacles in the aftermath of devastation and destruction, and finding that I can help to make a difference.
What changes have been made to the way cities/states respond to natural disasters?
In the past 10 years or so, we have observed significant changes in the ways that organizations communicate in disaster because of online and networked communications. At first, organizational leadership appeared reluctant to use these channels because they weren’t under their direct command, and there was a concern that they would no longer be able to ‘control the message.’ But they never were able to really control the message; the media, the public and others have always had an influence, and they risked becoming irrelevant by choosing not to enter the online conversation. Now we find government entities directly engaged with the public through social media, and stepping out in front to be leaders in online disaster communications.
What’s the toughest thing about your job?
It never ends. There is a new disaster every day. The media-attention cycle is very fast and it’s not possible to stay on top of every event that occurs. As a researcher, my primary mission is to conduct detailed, empirical analysis that will lead to useful communication strategies for the future. And the flip side to my research is knowing that every event that we study involves human injury. This is sobering and becomes even more of an impetus to do good research to reduce losses and save lives.
How has your field changed since you’ve been studying it?
If you take a look at a timeline of the emergence of new technologies over the past 10 years, you’ll see that as recently as 2001, when I first began conducting research on disaster response and recovery, we were still really a paper-based society. At that time, as I wandered around New York City I saw Xeroxed posters of missing persons plastered to walls. Just three years later, when the Banda Aceh earthquake and tsunami occurred in 2004, the world had migrated to online communications and people shared pictures of loved ones via Flickr. At the same time, we saw the emergence and growth of Wikipedia, Facebook and Myspace. It was only in 2005, less than 10 years ago, that Twitter was created, and in 2007 we conducted our first study on social media in disaster, finding that Twitter was emerging as a notable channel for disaster communications. Now people from all over the world can converge online and make a contribution in some capacity. Furthermore, social media provides new sources of information for emergency managers to develop greater situational awareness and to communicate with the public in real time without the same kind of reliance on broadcast media that they previously had. While people still communicate the same sorts of things in disaster, their strategies have dramatically changed.
What recommendations would you make to people responsible for emergency response?
In response to disaster events, we routinely see a convergence of people online, looking for information and making choices to follow organizations that they identify as key resources. This means that organizations will attract attention and grow dramatically when they deliver useful information to the public at risk. Organizations need to develop their online presence, both in terms of their content and their network connections prior to a disaster event, so that when something happens, they are prepared to connect with the public and communicate lifesaving information.