The Rise of the Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST)

The acronym VOST stands for Virtual Operations Support Team. VOST members are becoming increasingly critical to the successful management of emergencies and disasters. Their efforts help facilitate the recovery from these disruptions through modern communication technologies, especially social media like Twitter, Facebook and other messaging services. They provide support through internet connected devices to workers at emergency and disaster scenes, and they help crisis communicators to relay correct helpful information. This virtual support network of both official and volunteer members is critical because it prevents disaster relief personnel from drowning in the flood of data that is produced during an emergency event.

The Brief History of VOST

The VOST movement is not that old. It started to gain significant steam around 2010 when multiple forms of social media hit their stride. It was first used on the west coast as a means of coordinating and transferring vital information to emergency personnel fighting wildfires. Social media is quickly becoming the primary information source people consult during a crisis.

VOST was created out of an understanding that anyone who tried to assist in disaster relief efforts would be swamped with data to analyze, sort and translate into something useful. During catastrophic events, workers don’t have the time to perform such efforts nor do they have the clarity of mind or the communications familiarity to do it. There was a clear need to establish a group that would navigate through crisis information, prioritize it and send it to those on the front lines. This is the basis of VOST. VOST has evolved from a few small groups of volunteers with a sole figurehead to expansive organizations across multiple regions with a hierarchy of leaders. These digital volunteers have progressed right along with the improvements in technology and the creation of new social media tools. Their efforts and importance will only increase in value as technology progresses.

The Goal of VOSTs

When disaster strikes, VOST members are activated to complete specific actions to support jurisdictions. Typically there is a team leader assigned to each VOST and s/he acts as the lead contact point for the jurisdiction or organization that has been impacted by the emergency. The VOST movement is quickly gaining steam and more are forming as time progresses – often as emergent groups¬†and often as facilitators of outbound messages. When new VOSTs arise in the same area, an overarching VOST group is typically created to better coordinate the work of individual VOSTs. This makes the members’ efforts much more efficient and makes it easier to assist workers on the front lines of disaster scenes. Each group has designated leaders who typically have a surplus of emergency assistance experience. These leaders report directly to the team leader.

Above all, VOST members have a passion for understanding how social media can facilitate disaster relief efforts. They are intent on creating a means of operation that make life easier for both emergency personnel and those affected by the disaster. Some VOST members have experience as traditional volunteers for disaster situations while others have professional emergency experience. There are even newbies who are learning it all on-the-fly. They train on both actual disasters and live events that aren’t emergencies such as conferences, concerts, and sporting events. They test out the newest social media tools and internet communications to determine which are the most effective and reliable.

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