Craig Fugate has always been a man with a mission- and all the more so this week as the nation’s leading emergency responder, as the head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, tries to get 60 million people on the East Coast ready for Hurricane Irene.

Fugate, however, is also representative of a growing number of federal leaders who grasp the power and importance of using social media as a pivotal way for government to engage the public especially during emergencies.

The fact that FEMA has 52,420 followers on Facebook and 61,770 followers on its main Twitter account (the organization also has Twitter profiles for each of its 10 regional offices) and also maintains its own YouTube channel is evidence that the agency is gaining the public’s attention if not a massive social following.

Fugate perhaps better than most federal officials, though, sees how social media and mobile technology can become an extended asset for FEMA’s operations and its mission.

“The fact that individuals are likely to have their cell phones on them in a disaster environment is highly relevant to how we must plan for disasters,” Fugate told a Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs recently.

Calling communication in and around a disaster “a critical, life-saving part of FEMA’s mission,” Fugate said FEMA’s mobile site is an important step in the right direction, and he publicly encouraged “my state and local counterparts to create mobile versions of their websites that are easy to navigate from smartphones, allowing the public to receive localized information during a disaster.”

“I often say that individuals, families and communities are our nation’s ‘first’ first responders. The sooner we are able to ascertain the on-the-ground reality of a situation, the better we will be able to coordinate our response effort in support of our citizens and first responders,” he said. Through the use of social media, FEMA “can disseminate important information to individuals and communities, while also receiving essential real-time updates from those with first-hand awareness,” he said.

FEMA, in fact, announced the introduction of a mobile app today, available for the Android market, that lets consumers view a map of shelters and disaster recovery centers across the U.S. and review safety and preparation tips. (Versions for iPhones and Blackberry devices are due out in the coming weeks.)

Craig Fugate, 52, is the son of a career Navy veteran. He became a volunteer firefighter in high school , growing up in Florida, like his father, and later became a paramedic and fired department lieutenant before becoming a county emergency management chief and eventually director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

He’s no stranger to social media. Upon learning that President Obama had announced Fugate’s nomination to FEMA in 2009, Fugate wrote on Twitter, “Pigs do fly,” according to a New York Times report.

Fugate, of course, appears equally comfortable using mass media outlets, as well as YouTube, especially over the past 48 hours. Speaking on National Public Radio this morning, he acknowledged “A lot of people up north don’t think about hurricanes. It’s been a challenge to get people ready,” he said. “The window for getting ready is going to close very quickly.”

But part of Fugate’s agenda for getting the public prepared includes his appeal to the citizens to also think about using social media more during emergencies, to help relieve the burden on phone lines and cellular phone service.

“Remember that it may be difficult to call a lot of people, so do you have an out-of-the-area contact that you can use as your rally point or use something like a Facebook posting… to let people know you’re OK versus trying to call everybody and talk to them individually?” he said to viewers of CNN Thursday afternoon, as Hurricane Irene was barreling up the Florida coast.

We “really want to reserve particularly the phone lines and cell service for the emergency calls, 911 calls, and try to reduce that congestion. But that means ahead of time having a plan of how you’re letting people know you’re OK if the cells are out or if they’re congested or if you have limited communications such things as, you know, text messaging or updating a social webpage to let people know that,” he said.

Emergency communications for first responders, ironically, remain a sensitive issue on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Despite technology advances that make it possible for fire, police and emergency crews to speak to one another on different radio bands, Congress has failed to make similar progress with legislation that would free up valuable radio frequencies for emergencies.

In addition to his role as the public face of FEMA, Fugate also appears equally adept in the policy marshes that FEMA operates in around Washington. In recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, on “Reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program,” Fugate argued persuasively how recent reforms in FEMA have enabled a key program to work more effectively, and clearly “saves money, and more importantly, lives.”

But Fugate’s main mission, when he’s not staring down hurricanes like Irene, is to preach a different kind of federal preparedness, one he calls the “whole of community” approach.

The idea, as he described it most recently during an address on Aug. 16 and carried on CSPAN, involves engaging the private sector, communities as well as public sector groups as part of the federal government’s coordinated response to disasters.

That will surely be put to the test this weekend.

In the meantime, the public can test how well Fugate and FEMA are actually using social media at these sites: Mobile

On YouTube

On Facebook
On Twitter

Wyatt Kash is Editorial Director of Breaking Gov, which reports on innovators and innovations at work in the public sector.