US National Weather Service Partnerships and warnings

The National Weather Service in the US has a symbiotic working relationship with the broadcast media, which far surpasses anything in Australia.

Although The ABC has wonderful and often personal relationships with the Bureau of Meteorology, the US NWS systemises the process. (Mind you the idea that the ABC conducts hourly interviews with BoM staff in most of Australia was something that really excited the NWS people I spoke too – but that’s an aside).

The central pillar behind the success of the NWS relationship is the Integrated Warning Team, but there are other very important elements.

Warnings officers are stationed in all regional forecasting centres who have an emergency and community education role

Direct access between warnings officers, forecasters and broadcasters. A very important component of this approach is NWSchat – the “real-time interactive communications system” which would be well worth considering in Australia for all emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology.

It allows direct communications with experts “off line” seeking more information, more urgency, raising questions, and providing feedback.

To quote the NWSchat home page:

“NWS partners can use NWSChat as an efficient means of seeking clarifications and enhancements to the communication stream originating from the NWS during a fast-paced significant weather or hydrologic event. NWSChat is an Instant Messaging program used by NWS operational personnel to share critical warning decision expertise and other types of significant weather information essential to the NWS’s mission of saving lives and property.

Mike Hudson, the warning specialist at Kansas City, Missouri, says it helps to ensure that the messages being broadcast over multiple platforms is consistent: “If people receive more than one message at a time it can lead to paralysis.

“Inconsistent messaging leads people to “shop” for information, taking up valuable time to see if other radio and TV stations are carrying the same message.”

Real time chatroom content between the duty warnings forecaster and all media (or between emergency agency duty officers and the warnings media ) would enhance understanding at critical times.

NWSchat is linked directly to the local warnings officers. The use of Instant Messaging (IM) and chatrooms have proved to be valuable for this type of communication internally at The ABC and in many businesses, but to open them to various partners, like the NWS has done, is a bold step, which reflects the relationship between broadcasters and the NWS. The technical details are online and the following information is all provided by their site,

NWSchat is maintained by the National Weather Service and is situated behind a firewall. NWSChat is comprised of a pair of servers configured in a resilient primary/backup configuration, and receives auto-updates for all operating system patches and bug-fixes. The systems are scanned quarterly to identify and correct IT security vulnerabilities as required by NOAA IT Computer Security policy.

Individual user accounts are required for NWSChat; shared or group accounts are disallowed. A standardized account naming syntax is also enforced for manageability.

To register with NWSChat, users must submit an online form. Once submitted, the selected primary office receives an email of the request, and will approve or deny authorization for each user. Once approved, the requesting user is notified via email and then must complete online training for NWSChat.

Most multi-user chatrooms on NWSChat are open to NWS partners once they are authorized by the NWS. However, certain rooms are restricted for “members-only” access. This is necessary to secure information in specific chatrooms intended for certain partners only. For example, some information may be required by emergency managers that is not appropriate for media partners due to the sensitivity of and timeliness of emergency operations.

As a result, a members-only chatroom would be provided limiting access to NWS and authorized emergency managers exclusively, for a given location. In order to participate in NWSChat, you must meet at least one of the following standards:

• Be a member of the emergency management (EM) community: Members of the EM community includes public safety officials who serve as employees or contract agents of a government agency at the federal, state, local, or tribal level and are charged with protecting the public from hazards that are influenced by weather or weather-related events. Other members of this community include: safety and emergency personnel, from universities or other large entities with large populations, whose roles are functionally equivalent to the public safety officials described above, and Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

• Be a government partner of a NWS office: This includes Government partners who have missions that require close coordination with the NWS. Government partners include (but are not limited to) the FAA, and water and land management officials.

• Be a member of the electronic media: Members of the electronic media are parties, and contract agents of parties who:  Have a need to actively participate in discussions with NWS Forecast Offices on imminent weather or other hazards, and Operate systems that routinely and rapidly relay weather and water watches, advisories, warnings and forecast information to a significant part of the population served by an NWS office; via electronic information distribution such as radio, television, internet, cellular, and other wireless means. Note: Individuals, companies, or other entities involved in ‘chasing’ weather events and posting or streaming video or pictures of the event, but do not otherwise have a need to communicate with NWS do not meet the qualifications for this Service.


editors note: Typograp[hical erroir updated Dece,mber 3, 2012: Third para should read:

It allows direct communications with experts “off line” seeking more information, more urgency, raising questions, and providing feedback.


Warnings workshop by accident

“Linked-in” has a group called International Emergency Managers.

A thread was created with the headline: What does it take to get people to flee a storm. The response from numerous emergency specialists and people with widespread experience, was a fascintaing exercise. In fact it was what you’d get at a workshop if you handpicked the guests.

It starts with the general plea, and ends with very good dot point problem solvers.

Enjoy. Ian


Willard C. Harrison 111

What does it take to get people to flee a storm?

Emergency officials are looking at what more can be done to persuade residents to get out when their lives are in danger.

• Step 1 is to educate the leaders. Mayor Bloomberg told people as late as Saturday that it wouldn’t be that bad, but nobody knows where he got that info from. NYC evacuated the shoreline, but told nursing homes to shelter in place because the water won’t come up that high. Bad moves. 

Bill Pook

 I strongly agree with Rob Dale. This has to be a top down message. At the recent IAEM conference we had a session that dealt with the “rush to normalcy”. Examples such as Bloombergs miscue about the NY Marathon being something the city needed shows how elected leadership can be agenda squed and send out the wrong message. 

Keith Carson, MPA, FPEM, CHS-III 

A top down approach is good, but it’s about time people either listened to the experts, or took some responsibility. The real problem? It’s simple. They have to be survivors of a bad one to take it seriously. By nature we are a reactive society, and not a proactive one. We only lock the doors or install a burglar alarm after we’ve been victimized. Most also have the “it won’t happen to me mentality.” Also, look at last year with Hurricane Irene. Mayor Bloomberg kept shouting that the world was coming to and end and to prepare. Many did, but then were pissed off when it didn’t hit their area because it had shifted. Those are among the people for Sandy that didn’t even think about preparing. It’s interesting to watch these people on TV a day or two after the storm and cry “we have no food or water.” Well why not? Oh yeah, that’s right, because you didn’t prepare. There are some very interesting studies I’ve read about this and about 80% of the people who prepare were survivors of a previous disaster. Who’d a thunk it?

Bowman Olds 

For the many years that I have worked with folks along the Gulf coast, Key West, Barrier Islands, leaving their homes in the face of a hurricane, etc. in some cases was not an option they would entertain. Security of their home and their possessions seemed to be paramount. While I would almost agree with the thought that “They have to be survivors of a bad one to take it seriously” there is something about the way we tend to react whether its one of “it only happens to other people” or “it has never happened to me before.” My family was a prime example. Despite numerous warnings through the years about tsunamis impacting our town of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, we would rarely evacuate. The one time we failed to do so, our house was wiped out by a tsunami and 61 people were killed. 

Art Kirkland 

Being from New Orleans I have a slightly different take. Before Katrina there were countless “mandatory” evacuations for storms. Just a little over a month before, the City called for an evacuation for Hurricane Cindy. A lot of folks complied, and spent hours and hours on the road for a storm that did no damage. That was the norm, and still is when there is a mandatory evacuation. There is a basic rule in operant conditioning that if you want to stop a behavior, administer an unpleasant stimulus every time the subject performs the behavior. If you consistently tell people to put themselves through an evacuation, and most of the time there turns out to be no need, then you should not be surprised when people don’t comply with your instructions to evacuate. On that note, the answer to the question is to be more judicious in our warnings to evacuate. People will start to comply when compliance results in reward more often than punishment. 

Bill Pook

• It appears obvious that there needs to be a balance here. On one side we need targeted & judicious warnings from leadership based on best science. But prediction models are not always 100% accurate. So on the other side we need an educated and (self) responsible populace. With all the advance information about the destructive potential of Katrina & “Frankenstorm” Sandy, lack of individual protective actions is not justified by perceived former false alarms

Steve McMaster, CFM 

 It is always easier to do nothing. When faced with a threat and given a choice to evacuate or not evacuate, each person has to make a decision. As a volume of research has shown, that decision is often rational (although not necessarily so from a EMA professional’s standpoint). When each person is deciding whether to evacuate, they most likely weigh the costs and benefits. The costs would be lost time, hassle, leaving house/valuables unprotected, and many more, and the benefit would be avoiding injury or death. The key variable in this benefit-cost analysis is that individual’s understanding of their risk, which is most likely formed from experiences with previous events – as many of you have pointed out above. An interesting research study would be to interview people who did evacuate from Sandy’s devastated area to see why they did evacuate. This information would help with future risk education programs.

Steve McMaster, CFM 

One other brief comment – I’m convinced that there will always be a certain percentage of people who will never evacuate, no matter what. That’s where this article was interesting – with forced evacuations, fines, or jail time, that brings in the political element of elected officials not wanting to overstep boundaries or adding salt to the wound of those already impacted by the event.

Jan Glarum 

Perhaps government declared “mandatory” evacuations should come with the same set of caveats that go declaring someone under quarantine. maybe then we might do a better job of comprehensively preparing for such an event; not use it as a default or no-harm strategy and then play the “we told them to leave” card every time the same results occur.

Rob Dale 

I think quarantines are too different though to directly apply… Force can be used to keep you in/out of a location. Force cannot be used to pull someone from their home in an evacuation.

Jan Glarum • Could you define your use of the term “force’ Rob?

Art Kirkland 

Bill, I have to disagree with your statement about advance warning. The problem is that there is always advance warning…even when there is no threat. Here in Louisiana we heard that Isaac “has the potential to be much worse that Katrina”. It is a staple of our sensation-seeking while risk-averse culture. The problem with all of the advance warning is that it is biased toward a false-positive result. As long as that is the case, we will continue to have problems getting people to evacuate or take other responsible protective actions. 

Rob Dale 

Under a quarantine (at least in my state) “A local health department or the department may provide for the involuntary detention and treatment of individuals with hazardous communicable disease”. By involuntary that would imply “you may not want to go, but you are since you are a threat to the community.” :) I know many other states have the ability to hold someone with a hazardous disease. I don’t know of any states that have the legal right to enter your home and remove you for your safety though.

Bill Pook 

Art, so in Loiusiana you have advance warnings issued when there is no threat? I know you didn’t mean it like that. A hurricane warning by the NOAA means the threat potential is there. Here along the edge of the prairie we have people who think they are safe unless the (tornado) sirens are sounded. Then again we have others who hear the sirens and immediately go outside to look (thus ignoring the warning). Complacency, contempt or ignorance…lives and property are being lost that could be saved. That is why I strive to strike then “balance” I mentioned and move the paradigm.

Rob Dale 

Actually running out to see is not ignoring the warning at all. That’s the confirmation stage, and I’m not sure that can be skipped.

Art Kirkland 

Bill…actually that is exactly what I meant. In the run up to Katrina, there were at least three mandatory evacuations. None of those storms did any appreciable damage. So…you load family and possessions into a vehicle, Spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to get out of harm’s way. Spend money you don’t have on a hotel room and food out for three days. Try to come home only to find out that the city/parish won’t allow you to come in yet. And then do it all again.

The problem (at least with hurricanes) is that being in the “probable impact area” in the time frame necessary to evacuate means that there is a 75% chance nothing will happen. I’m not sure how we balance that. We just did a quick study on evacuations and looked backward. If we evacuated every time that our current criteria were met, we would have evacuated 7 times since Katrina. In fact we have evacuated once. Issac was the only non-evacuation among those that caused any significant upheaval. And, sure enough folks are looking saying “you had all this advance warning, why didn’t you evacuate.”

On the other hand, what would people say if we spent a half-million dollars to evacuate and the result was something like Tropical Storm Lee last year (minimal wind, rain, we were actually playing football an hour after landfall). We would look like idiots and be hung out to dry for over reacting. 

Bill Pook 

Rob, Our local publicized policy is that sirens are sounded for “imminent” danger….not to go outside. Take immediate protective actions, Media broadcasts, social media, community alert networks and NOAA alert radios are advance warning/notification. At least in our area.

Bill Pook 

Art, I wish you luck in doing what is best for your community. Don’t feel alone, we have people purposefully building/living in (river) flood zones too. 

Rob Dale 

Bill, I understand what you are saying… I’m on the team that developed national best practices for outdoor warning sirens last year. My point is that ignoring the science behind the way people react to sirens, and then blaming the people for not reacting the way we want, is probably not productive. Mileti & Sorensen have spent a lot of time showing how people react to a warning.

People must:

1 Hear the warning

2 Understand the contents of the warning message

3 Believe the warning is credible and accurate

4 Personalize the warning to oneself

5 Confirm that the warning is true and others are taking heed …and then…

6 Respond by taking a protective action

A siren is step 1. Expecting them to jump right to step 6 is simply not the way it works. Finding out how ways to reduce the timeframe to get from step 1 to 6 would be a productive exercise.

The bigger issue with sirens is overuse. Especially from overtesting. Research shows that when you go more often than one time a month, people become immune to real world alerts. I know of some communities in Kansas that test every week, and we have a town to my north that sounds it every day for the lunchtime whistle! 

Bill Pook

Rob~ exactly, there is a science to understand how people react…and yes, we should expect what we expect of people, not what we wish from people. I take a different step-by-step approach:

People must;

1. Be aware of their surroundings. If the skies look ominous do a heads up for possible actions

2. Listen to the media, social networks/public notification. If the forecast is for possible storms, stay tuned and listen for updates

3. Have a NOAA radio at home/work/school

4. Then with my steps 1-3 when you hear the sirens, your steps 2,3,4 & 5 will have already been met

Over Testing is a BIG problem. Across our state there is no consistent policy. You have a town that “blows the noon whistle”? I have one small village (pop 1,243) that blows the sirens twice a day (lunch & supper) I know of some communities that no longer have any sirens at all…just because they are not effective according to how people react.

We had an F-1 last year that hit with absolutely no official NWS warning (just a “watch). (Although storms were forecasted all day in the media and the skies were black at 5 pm in June). IF we had sounded the sirens and people would have stepped outside, they would have been caught exposed. Let’s stay in touch… it’s great to learn other views.  

Matthew Ellis

As emergency mangers we have one major flaw, we rely to much on OUR experience and often ignore the science behind emergency management. Experience is great, it allows us to be better emergency managers but we must also understand the theory behind various disciplines and utilise the studies that have been conducted to improve our knowledge. How many times have we heard about Panic, when studies have shown that this seldom occurs. We must move beyond our narrow experiences and embrace all the tools of the job. If we don’t, then how can we expect to be treated seriously by other disciplines/ professions and people of influence including politicians. We need, just like every other profession be able to justify our claims with more than our experience, we need to be able support them with facts and figures.

Jan Glarum 

Great comment Matthew. 

Bowman Olds 

Based on past observations, the following four stages (author unknown), remain at the forefront of being unprepared:

1. “It won’t happen to me.”

2. “If it does happen, it will happen to someone else.”

3. “If it does happen to me, it won’t be that bad.”

4. “If it is that bad, there is nothing I can do about it anyway.”

Ryan Kelzenberg 

There have been some great reviews and studies about the format of emergency messaging. One of the areas we need to improve on is the content and quality of the message that is being sent. We also have to accept that many citizens will not take action from only one message to do so.

During our annual AMEM conference Dennis S. Mileti, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado, Boulder did a great presentation and I included the links to his slide show below. We have to provide enough information for our residents to act. It took about 3 different messages before they began to take action. The content of the message also needs to be changed to include detailed information on these points:

Who needs to evacuate

What needs to be done (shelter in place, evacuate, etc)

When does this need to be done by

 Where do I need to go

Why do I need to do this

If you have time, take a look at the slide show, and I would recommend Dr. Meliti as a presenter for any EM related conference.

Rob Dale 

I’d also add Drabek to that list – the 2nd edition of his book is coming out in the spring. Well worth reading the first if you haven’t already…


Human Security and Disasters: workshop

I have just discovered RMIT is running what appears to be a workshop that might help change the dialogue around warnings, from a  process driven by emergency agencies and government protocol, to one focussed on personal need and community activity.

This is of course close to my heart, which beats with it’s regular rhythm now:

“All disasters are local, all warnings are personal.”

It’s titled: “Human Security and Disasters: A Dialogue,” and the flyer says:

“This workshop seeks to create a productive exchange of ideas between human security and disaster management.

Human security seeks to reprioritize the central role of the state, instead locating people as the referent around which security is oriented.

Security as much as it is a practice is also an existential condition, with people experiencing greater or lesser degrees of security and insecurity as they interact with political, social and natural events.

Similarly in disaster management it is clear that disasters are primarily human events. The exposure of people and the vulnerability of communities to disaster events are key predictors in the level of disaster risk.

Disaster risk reduction policies can thus equally address underlying conditions of social inequality and work towards a broader goal of human development. Given these shared goals, this workshop will create dialogue on the differing methods and terminologies with a view to energizing the respective approaches to addressing conditions of human insecurity and vulnerability. This workshop will be addressing the central thematics:

• Theorising resilience and security

• Evaluating civil-military interaction after disaster or conflict

• Addressing vulnerability and insecurity

This workshop will feature speakers representing a wide range of perspectives from research and practice and is organised by the Human Security and Disasters Program of the Global Cities Research Institute in conjunction with the Centre for Risk and Community Safety.

Emergency journalism and recovery broadcasting

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation the only media organisation in the world undertaking “emergency broadcasting,” giving emergency agencies a reliable radio and online platform to issue all warnings for all hazards, to the entire community. Radio is important as its cheap, mobile, and robust.

“Emergency broadcasting” allows a graduated warning process, which is another unique aspect of the content. It has been warmly received by the community and is considered central to the warning process in Australia.

But others are interested in the role journalism can play in assisting communities in emergencies. Here’s a useful web site that collates many blogs in the emergency journalism field.

Meantime, Dr Rob Gordon and I spent some time discussing the role of news gathering in disasters.

Often covering a disaster in a shallow, incomplete way, does more damage than good. Which got us thinking – how could journalists ensure they create benefits when covering disasters, and avoid leaving more damage behind.

Here’s the checklist:


Recovery broadcasting is about helping the community and individuals recover by sharing their stories, and through that, enabling them to realise the strengths of their community that are worth remembering when they are going through dark times. It is about understanding the true fabric of a community, how it can be stretched, can break, or can remain intact and strong and be something those affected by the disasters to rely on.

This approach to gathering content will not generate what we would normally refer to as  “news” which have clear issues which can be chased up, fixed up, blamed on someone, and corrected. It’s about individual human perspective, which is personal, emotional, uncertain and changes over the path of the disaster, as it moves from preparation through rescue, to recovery and normalisation.

In other words we can give people perspective.  Disaster Psychologist Dr Rob Gordon says people feel better if they know someone’s listening.  As Frank Duffy from Roleystone told ABC Local Radio Perth morning presenter Geoff Hutchison on the Monday morning after the fires there : ”I think talking to someone makes it easier.”

The people in disasters will all be, at some level, traumatised. They cant think strategically and plan; they will react to the first thing which occurs to them. Slowly they will get their day to day lives in order,  followed by making decisions about  other things. As they unwind from the stress of the event they need understanding.

Let the talent have time to tell their stories. They need our patience.

The aim is that people will discover how their experience compares of that to others  to put their minds at rest.  They will come to understand what actually happened around them while they were hunkered down or evacuating. This will help them move on in their mental and physical recovery process.

As Dr John Irvine told ABC Queensland after cyclone Yasi: ”We’ve got to maintain their tribal support.”

Grief and hopelessness

We can play a vital role in motivating the community to work together during these times, and the recovery will be quicker and stronger. Many will not be coping very well. They will be tearful and emotional, and sometimes during your conversation they might stop talking and appear embarrassed. That’s normal. Stay with them,  be sympathetic: “Clearly it’s been hard for you” or “it’s understandable that you will be emotional at times like this.” Do not say “I understand,” because unless you have been through what they have been through, you don’t.  It is an element of the ABC Editorial Policies that we don’t intrude into grief. If the interview is so emotional that it deteriorates, stop what you are doing. If it’s a pre-record, ask them if they are okay with you broadcasting the interview. Give them the right to their privacy and feelings. If you feel there is any doubt about their emotional ability to make that decision, drop the interview.

Often we hear a person say:  “I’ve lost everything”  and it seems to broadcasters that sometimes it is that phrase alone which is important as it reveals the scale of the event.

But we can help people reduce the personal scale of their disaster to something that’s manageable by encouraging people to understand a more realistic assessment of their loss:  they haven’t lost the environment; they haven’t lost their friends and relatives; they haven’t lost their memories and they haven’t lost the community spirit which kept them living in their communities in the first place.

If someone says “All is lost,” you cant easily disagree with them, because that’s a bit aggressive, but you can ask them to tell you “what was beautiful about this community before the cyclone” and very quickly they will change the direction of their thoughts, and you’ll find a more hopeful insight is delivered.

Now is a good time for groups like Lions, Rotary, school councils and churches, to come together and start supporting their communities. Encourage that.

To change their thoughts a little, you might ask: ”What would you like to have done….” or ask them what they need right now? (But do not encourage donated goods at any time.)


It is well known from research that people in disasters feel inclined to set unrealistic recovery deadlines. They make quick, ill considered decisions, that lead to long term pressure and stress.

In fact suicides, family and business breakdown, all rise about nine months after any disaster, as people who think they SHOULD have rebuilt in a year,  realise the task isn’t completed, and they begin to feel hopeless, disorganised, and that they’ve let down their family, friends and communities.

Help relieve this process by avoiding any talk of deadlines. Don’t ask people what they will be like in a year – ask them “what will your life be like when you are recovered (No deadline mentioned).”


Occurs when normal communication networks between people break down because people don’t feel they share the same experience. It occurs between the insured and the uninsured; the damaged and undamaged; those who left and those who stayed. If cleavage takes hold in a community, be it a family, a street, a school or a sports club, it is very hard to recover. Help the community understand this problem.  Encourage people to maintain their personal networks and links, and explain how important it is to keep talking to each other and check up on the members of their community group, family or network.


In order to build a connection with individuals, we need to be physically with them, preferably alongside as they experience the event, and then with them as they recover. For ABC Local Radio this means emergency broadcasting and rolling coverage begins earlier and stays on air a little longer. It means we will send reporters or broadcasters to the scene as soon as it’s safe; and we will send “recovery teams” of experienced broadcasters  into the areas afterwards, when all other media have left,  to maintain the connection.

Repeatedly we hear that some communities feel isolated, ignored and lost. ABC Local Radio can find those suburbs and towns and communities, and bring hope to those who need to hear the outside world cares about their plight.

We will encourage outside broadcasts, recovery broadcasting and opportunities to be with the communities in this way.

Equally thought there is a chance that communities which are subject to the harsh glare of the media spotlight might feel betrayed if the media arrives, peers into people’s emotional trauma, and never comes back.  ABC Local Radio should never promise to deliver something it cant, but it should make every effort to find ways of staying with recovering communities.  Following individual family reconstruction is one way; regular interviews with a local person about the pathway of recovery is another; keeping in touch with community leaders, and checking on special dates are other ways to keep in touch (For example: find out how many players the sports clubs have at the beginning of their next season – and help the community understand how important it is to stay with local networks).


Some anger is natural after a disaster, but it can take energy away from the recovery. It also seriously impacts on the morale of the recovery teams, many of whom are volunteers . Try not to encourage division and anger. There is a role to cover issues, and to hear the issues, but not to the extent that it detracts from the optimism and positive community insight. There are many, many outlets that can examine this element:  in the Queensland sugar town of Tully which had been hit by Cyclone Yasi one man got angry with Tony Abbot, and it was front page news in Brisbane where the media outlet said:  ”Anger is rising in North Qld.” Programs and ABC News and every media desk in the world will focus on the anger, in recovery mode we should ensure we don’t focus on this while ignoring other elements of the recovery process. As 774 ABC Melbourne Evening presenter tells his audience:   “That way madness lies.”


Communities are made strong by their existing institutions. Their sports clubs;  councils; schools; neighbourhood houses; Rotary/Lions/Probus, police, street meetings; SES; farmers groups; CWA; business and tourism lobby groups etc.

The recovery task forces will be trying to ensure these are strengthened and the recovery is being focussed on existing institutions, rather than something new. New leaders emerge and sometimes detract from the good work of previous community leaders, displacing them almost, further encouraging “cleavage” and division. Be careful of new community leaders. By all means encourage them, but try to find others who are also the existing community leaders. Talk to the presidents of the netball, cricket and rugby clubs and ask them what their community is doing. “Maintain tribal support.”

Non-traditional media users

Try to find people to talk to in the communities which do not use the media much, as they will feel valued if the wider community understands their predicament: Indigenous, children, very old, the sick; those with handicaps, non English speaking; refugees; unemployed. They, like any member of the community, should not be ignored or overlooked.

Look at economic community too: mines, tourism, education; transport; real estate; mechanics, engineering firms –  they are the small business life blood of their towns.

Recognition and commemoration

You will find there are some unsung heroes in the community and the institutions they work with are vital, so if we promote their work, it builds trust in those communities. This relates especially to police, electrical, telecomms  and Local Government workers. Try to interview them about their role (not the mayors and commissioners, we hear plenty from them, but get the personal stories from the coal-face workers.)

Commemoration of the event is vital, as it creates a sense of perspective, and ensures that the community does not feel forgotten when the momentum has gone out of the news flow.

The recovery from floods and cyclones takes years, not months. Many people will not return to their homes for 18 months or more.

Commemorate  with sympathy.

Let me know if you have any insights into this…I will enjoy your feedback.


About Rob Gordon

I am grateful to Rob Gordon for giving up time to explain he processes and work with me to try to work out how to assist the recovery process, and avoid some of the pitfalls.

Rob has done numerous interviews with ABC after disasters, and is honing his clinical skills as a commentator! Her presented at a Local Radio Awards seminar in Sydney. He will welcome your call.

Rob Gordon, Ph.D.,  is a clinical psychologist who has worked in disasters since the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires.  He has been a consultant to the Victorian Emergency Management Plan for twenty years and has been involved in most major Victorian emergencies since then.  He has consulted to rural communities, staff and agencies involved in supporting them in fire, flood, cyclone and drought in most Australian states and New Zealand.  He conducts a private psychotherapy practice in Box Hill, Victoria where he treats adults and children affected by trauma and disaster as part of a general practice.  He is a regular lecturer to emergency recovery training courses conducted by the Australian Emergency Management Institute and provides training and consultation to agencies in Australia and New Zealand.  He has published a number of articles in the field of trauma and disaster.

H: + 61 3 9730 2223

W: +61 417 033 744

Human behaviour and warnings – a new way

Disaster psychologists focus on human response to disasters when creating warning systems, but it’s so far more of an art than a science. Issuing warnings is one thing, but getting useful and timely response from those potentially affected is an altogether more challenging business.

I was fascinated by a new report in Scientific American which got me thinking maybe we have to think differently.

Let’s go back a little: Dr Rob Gordon ( from Melbourne has written extensively about the chemical changes in the human brain which determine how people will respond during disasters. It’s more complex than any “fight or flight” mechanism. He describes shock, over-arousal, stress, emotion and anxiety as typical stressors.

Tasmanian researcher Doug Paton adds risk perception; levels of preparedness, financial position; beliefs, language and culture; understanding of the environment; previous experience; and things like having responsibility for pets and children and elderly all add to the noise that prevents people hearing simple messages and taking action. (“Warning systems: issues and considerations for warning the public” School of Psychology, University of Tasmania. Launceston.)

Now this item from Scientific American sheds interesting light on human behaviour during disasters which gives us pause for thought. Maybe in a complex enviroinment we need to think about how we talk to each other, not on just what we say.

“Social connection may be particularly important under stress because stress naturally leads to a sense of vulnerability and loss of control. A study by Benjamin Converse and colleagues at the University of Virginia found that feeling out of control (through a reminder of one’s mortality) leads to greater generosity and helpfulness while research at Stanford University by Aneeta Rattan and Krishna Savani showed that the opposite is true when we are primed with feelings of self-determination and control.”

Perhaps warning systems have to embrace emotional capacity. Perhaps an encouraging helpful and friendly tone has as much role to play as timeliness and accuracy?

I was constantly puzzled when researching my Bushfires book why strong, friendly communities abandoned relationships when confronted by a wall of flame, and concentrated on themselves and their family, and then fled. The Canberra experience was particularly distressing in this regard.

If people are more generous then warnings content like: “help your family and friends and neighbours,” would sit comfortably with people, but also penetrate their natural behaviour emotions. If this was the case then early warnings would have more impact, as people stopped thinking only of their personal need, but started to imagine how they might also assist their community. If this led to earlier response and preparation, it would be a useful outcome.

In any event research like this in Scientific American reminds us that issuing warnings has to go further than “keep it simple.”  Emeritus Professor Dennis Miletti from the University of Colorado, says it’s surprising how much content people confronting a disaster can absorb.

Paton says “a single warning is not sufficient to get people involved and to respond.” (“Promoting Household and Community Preparedness for bush fires.” )


Evacuations, warning and the electric connection

There is a growing debate that decisions to shut down electricity transmission lines on extereme or catastrophic fire days will have unintended consequences which are more damagaing than the decision to leave the power on. Questions must be asked – who is really benefitting from a decision to shiut down power, when research shows that 1-4 percent of all bushfires are caused by electricity lines?

Athol Yates, an engineer, has unearthed some interesting options in his paper which he is now distributing. (Contact Athol:

Michael Eburn’s excellent blog “emergency law” reveals a new report from a trusted and well respected organisation, casts serious doubt on the decision to shut down power.

“Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia now paints a different picture.  In their article ‘The definite health risks from cutting power outweigh possible bushfire prevention benefits’ (197(8) Medical Journal of Australia440-441 (15 October 2012)) Richard Broome and Wayne Smith report on their study of the likely public health effects of cutting off the power.    They say:

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission heard that about 1%–4% of all bushfires are caused by electrical faults and that this proportion rises on days when catastrophic fires have occurred.  Switching off the power supply will, therefore, prevent a small proportion of fires. On the other hand, a functioning power supply has many health and safety benefits that may be particularly important on days of high fire danger.

Cutting off the power can affect people’s ability to receive warnings as they can’t operate televisions and computers, can cause failure of traffic signals increasing the risk of accidents, may cause garage doors to fail leaving people trapped and may affect fire fighting efforts by restricting the supply of water.   Cutting off power may also increase the risk from other ignition sources such as cooking fires and home generators.”

This touches on the issue of evacuation and warnings. Michael points out:

“The findings of Broome and Smith may be true if people who live in fire prone areas fail to prepare and assume that the power will always be on and that they can stay in their home until evacuated by the fire service.”

Both articles are worth a read.

The US national emergency warning system

Threats of nuclear war, nuclear meltdown, and catastrophic level natural disasters have resulted in the US creating an integrated warning service that is effective, reliable, flexible, comprehensive, local and personal.

It’s called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and includes several major components: the Emergency Alert System (EAS)  (don’t confuse this with the phone-based local warning system operating in Australia under the same name.) which leverages the radio and television broadcasting, the Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMAS) that communicates to cellular phones, and an interface to the US’s National Weather Service’s All Hazards Weather Radio network. (See next post for details of IPAWS and CMAS, andf previous post for NWS)

Although EAS was established and is understood to be a contingency platform in the event of other communication failures, it has become at the local level, a primary warning system.

In the 1950’s the US legislated to create a public early warning system in response to the threat of a nuclear armed attack from the Soviet Union. It was assumed the US President would need to be able to address the population immediately. The first system was set up under the electro-magnetic radiation bill because AM and FM transmitters were used for targeting of warheads, it came under this legislative sphere.

After the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960’s, the system was enhanced and modernised and named with Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).

It was updated again in the 1990’s to take advantage of new communications mechanisms and renamed the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and after Hurricane Katrina, was modified yet again, to deal with specific events.

And it’s been enhanced after technological developments, and now embraces the cell phone system which also rebroadcasts messages.

The nature of the US society, the culture driven by private ownership, and the  technology available to the US, have driven the developments.

Initially the system was simple and elegant – radio and TV transmitters would be connected to a control room operated by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (or its then equivalent) and the President would be able to speak to the public within ten minutes.

It was robust and virtually fail safe. The signal was provided to multiple and numerous “primary” radio and TV broadcasters in any or all regions. They would then be responsible for rebroadcasting instantly and at least two other broadcasters in their region would be expected to retransmit. Those broadcasters then rebroadcast as well, until nearly all radio and TV stations were connected. They called it a “daisy chain” which describes it nicely. There are 20,000 transmitters attached to the system.

 It was tested nationwide for the first time in November 2011 and while something like 20 percent of the broadcasts, at the hyper-local level, failed, the test was deemed a success because technical strengthens and weaknesses were identified and can now be addressed.

Broadcasters were required to install the reception equipment at their own cost and as part of the broadcast licence agreement,  but stand by generators for the primary stations were funded by a government program.  While this was initially pushed as a public service function for broadcasters,  in reality competitive forces have ensured that all the major broadcasters take the EAS seriously.

Initially the system was set up to take Presidential messages. In 1995 it was decided that it would be enhanced to allow local and state emergency messages to be inserted, and the National Weather Service was connected to it in 2006. In this way National Weather alerts are monitored, and frequently rebroadcast, on all radio and TV stations, as well as NOAA National Weather Radio.

The guiding principles have since been extended to the internet and mobile platforms. In this way the system has become what’s now known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

One of the major principles of IPAWS is that it is an open network. All emergency agencies, as well as the National Weather Service are able to use its operating standards and protocols to issue warnings.

“Disseminators” receive data in the same way at the same time for redistribution.

This has become vital to the system’s flexibility.  Initially the content was directed at radio and TV, and then extended to National Weather Service.

The development of the internet and RSS feeds meant that some broadcasters on digital platforms wanted the content.

And finally with the advent of local area cell broadcasting, telecommunications firms wanted to enhance the value of the handset, and they too receive all content for rebroadcasting.  Approximately 400 commercial mobile service providers have licensed for content, and 100 are already broadcasting warnings messages to those who choose to buy handsets which are emergency warning connected. Embedded data enables all outlets to be automated.

The system has never been used for a Presidential address.  Antwane Johnson, the Director of IPAWS,  says  it doesn’t mean there have never been widespread threat to warrant that.

“It’s a contingency system and was only ever to be used if other telecommunications systems failed.” The telecommunications and broadcast industry has never failed, so was not used in the missile crisis, or the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks.

Meeting Antwane Johnson, FEMA, October 2012.

Mr Johnson works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.  “Our goal is to improve the nation’s capability to ensure under all conditions the President can talk to the public, but when the President isn’t using the system, local officials can use the capabilities to send alerts to their local citizens to enhance public safety. We develop, maintain and operate the system.”

Manny Centeno, a program manager for IPAWS, says the standard is to be able to broadcast to the entire nation in ten minutes, and participants or disseminators are required to be able to rebroadcast almost instantly when a new alert is received. The system is automated: “We can do much better than 10 minutes if not better. It’s virtually instant.

“Although the legislation provides that we make the system available for Presidential messages, almost all of the use is currently at the local and state level, and through NOAA weather warnings.”

“The only mandatory requirement is that the system be in place for a Presidential address. All other content is voluntary, but there is tremendous private sector involvement, being driven by their licence requirement to serve the public interest – that’s the primary reason the US allocated spectrum to broadcasters.

Some broadcasters were initially worried about liability, for carrying warning messages, and for failure to carry them, and for hoaxes.

Senders of alert messages are validated in the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN system, through a series of cyber security protocols before rebroadcast but there are no other filters.


Broadcast community partnerships in the US

The media and broadcast in the US are highly valued partners in disseminating information and warnings about all hazards in a way that isn’t apparent in Australia.

There are three elements on which the partnerships are based which serve the US well – legislation, obligation and co-operation. All three are, to some extent, missing from the landscape in Australia.


The US set up CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation, or CONELRAD (1951 – 1963), and the Emergency Broadcast System, or EBS (1963 – 1997) to deal with the threat posed by the Cold War. Legislation was passed which compelled radio stations to participate in the program at their own cost, and to ensure they could carry all Presidential level warnings and addresses.

“It is a condition of their licence agreement now that TV and radio broadcast companies serve the public interest,” says Manny Centeno, the Program Manager of the Integrated Public Alert and Warnings system with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are using public airwaves, the public owns them.”

Jim Bremer, the program director at KQMS Newstalk Radio backs up the observation, ”We’re licensed to serve the public.”

Jim Bremer, EP at KQMS Reading

In 1997, the EBS modernised into the Emergency Alert System, or EAS, and in 2006 President Bush issued Executive Order 13047, which required that an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System be built. The legislation was changed to enable the system to be used by state and county agencies to alert their community to potential hazards. In all counties now the system is used frequently to alert the community to weather hazards, and “AMBER alerts“ – notifications of recent child abductions.

 The Commercial Mobile Alert System is one of several systems within IPAWS. The Commercial Mobile Service Providers’ decision to broadcast alerts and warnings is voluntary. “We have 400 telecommunications providers in the US, and within a few months of the process being set up, we already have over 100 providers who’ve opted in,” said Manny Centeno.”

The cost to send these alerts: “Nothing at all, they do it voluntarily.”

Phone companies will receive alerts via the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN, and then broadcast them to the public in areas which have been geo-targeted by emergency alerting authorities.

To ensure the process is smooth, the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA set standards and protocols, developed a common operating system for emergency agencies and provide training. The FCC requires a monthly test of the system.

In addition, the National Weather Service was provided with funding to set up its own radio network – the National Weather Radio. With more than 1100 transmitters, it’s a robust and comprehensive system, which has come to be relied upon by a sizeable proportion of the US community.


Legislation alone cannot compel organisations to ensure that all aspects of their content meet the requirements of Federal Government or the needs of their communities. Only the “Presidential Address” is obligatory, all other warning content is carried voluntarily. But the competitive nature of the private sector has ensured that all participants feel obliged to participate. The telecommunications companies created demand for phone handsets that are warning compatible.

The radio and TV stations know that in an emergency their competitors will be broadcasting warnings, and they can’t afford to ignore the possible impact on their audience reach.

TV stations play the most important role, with weather presenters being the go-to people when an emergency begins. TV watching seems to be universal. Homes, clubs, bars, restaurants, schools, public gathering places like airports all seem to have TV networks switched on 24/7.

Jim Bremer from KQMS estimates that his company spends $20,000 on the hardware to receive EAS content, and there are numerous stations in his comparatively small company.


“Tremendous private sector involvement is the key to the success of CMAS and EAS,” says Wade Witmer, FEMA’s Deputy Director of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

There is no doubt that emergency managers are grateful for the support they are receiving from broadcasters.

But to ensure the process is integrated, there has to be high level and frequent co-operation. FEMA and the Federal Communication Commission have a monthly meeting with national broadcasters and telecommunications companies, to ensure the systems remain technically robust and to create a standard for sharing of information between emergency agencies and the disseminators.

“You have to engage the broadcasters. A lot of them don’t trust each other” says Manny Centeno, in a phrase that will resonate with broadcasters and emergency agencies everywhere. “But some broadcasters do call themselves first responders, which shows they are fully engaged.”

In addition to the nationwide meetings, each state has a meeting of State broadcasters and their emergency management agencies each month.

The National Weather Service also reflects the expectation that there will be leadership and co-operation. Warnings’ broadcasters meet their local and regional broadcasters frequently to extend understanding. Additionally, the NWS set up NWSchat, to talk directly to broadcasters to ensure their message is well understood and useful.


Howard Price, the emergency manager at the American Broadcast Corporation, which runs radio and TV stations and networks across the US, sums up the three elements nicely: “It’s about public interest, convenience and necessity.” The public interest is obvious but why convenience? “Because FEMA, NWS and FCC created the platforms which we plug into to receive all the warnings and content.” Necessity? “That’s just competition to retain listenership and audience.”

The partnership model was started by the private sector. “Richard Rudman, the Director of Engineering at CBS started the “Partnership for Public Warning” says Howard Price. “We also started the Media Security and Advisory Council after 9/11. During Hurricane Katrina, Entercom, which owns one of their local stations never went off air. They set the gold standard for emergency broadcasting.”

Howard Price is proud of the role the broadcasters play in issuing warnings and information in the US. “EAS is a good system, but it has to be defended, and the local stations have to practice using it. The total cost for ABC to implement the mandatory system on its own network runs to five figures, and no-one here has ever suggested the Government should pay.”

Nevertheless the companies retain editorial control. “We put warnings on every station. It’s good for the warnings to be on during kids watching time as their parents are often watching with them. But the ABC never puts an unverified warning to air. No talk station in their right mind will do that.”

Charles W. McCobb

Program Manager

IPAWS Program Office /NCP


Are we ready for a catastrophic solar storm?

This is a pretty interesting item, in today’s New York Times, which might make a few people start to wonder about solar storms.