Social media’s ability to help businesses engage with their members, users and audiences is becoming increasingly more common, and something what many in the communications field have actively been encouraging their clients to do.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is social media’s broader ability to quickly share and disseminate critical information when things go wrong, wrong as in threatening, dangerous, and frequently life-altering, which we’re seeing right now with the California wildfires. CenterNetworks points to some of the recent coverage of the fires on sites such as Flickr (see the search term “california fires” for recent images), YouTube ( see the 2000+ results for “california fires”) and Wikipedia (see “California Wildfires of October 2007”) among others. CNET reports how microblogging site Twitter is being used by news organizations such as KPBS and L.A. Times and individuals Nate Ritter to give updates. And Ustream.tv is showing live coverage of the fires.

Meanwhile, on-the-ball international organizations such as the American Red Cross are using social media tools to help serve as vital and up-to-date information sources — see the Online Disaster News Portal, as well as the Red Cross and the Safe and Well Twitter accounts.

My prediction is that within a relatively short time frame, say perhaps three years, the majority of disaster relief organizations, both government and private, will fully implement real-time information dissemination via text messaging, microblogging and an assortment of additional tools and social networking sites.

(Cross-posted from New Millennium PR)