How do people want their emergency advice?

There is a great deal of focus at present on providing the right advice to the community before, during and after emergencies – in the right way, at the right time and in language and format people can understand, even in the face of a calamity.

But are we considering the community needs, or the emergency agency needs?

Research in Far North Queensland by Sandy Astills [] suggests sometimes it will be useful to look more carefully at how emergency agencies and disseminators are delivering information.

The Australian Journal of Emergency Management contained an article on these dilemma’s by Sandy, and she then spoke to ABC Local Radio Far North Qld broadcaster Richard Dinnen, on July 23, 2014.


The Joplin (Missouri, US, May 2011) tornado

The tornado which hit this town in 2011 brings with it many insights for emergency managers trying to ensure that warnings change people’s behaviour when they are confronted with a disaster with very little or no warning.

Joplin’s a town of about 50,000 people on the south eastern corner of Missouri, US. It’s in “tornado alley” and many people in the region have experienced tornadoes before.

At 5.30 pm on  Sunday May 22, 2011, a tornado about a kilometre wide, travelled across the residential areas of the town, just missing the CBD, but destroying thousands of homes, a nine storey hospital, a Walmart, big sports stores, schools and municipal buildings. The damage path was 9 km long.

158 people were killed and more than one thousand injured. According to a report by the US National Weather Service this was the “single deadliest tornado in U.S. history since modern record-keeping began in 1950.”  It traveled 35 km on the ground and the maximum wind speed was estimated at 321 km/h. Compare this to reports from the BoM on Tropical Cyclone Yasi of March 2011, which hit North Queensland with maximum wind gusts of 285km/h.

Joplin High School, Franklin Technology Center and Irving Elementary School were destroyed. The roofs were blown off East Middle School and Cecil Floyd Elementary.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center took a direct hit from the tornado and was eventually knocked down. The local newspaper said the town’s other major hospital was quickly “overwhelmed” by injured people. “People were being delivered in pickup trucks, lying on doors and pieces of plywood that served as makeshift stretchers. Also overwhelmed was an emergency medical center that was set up at Memorial Hall.”

A Joplin street in September 2012, showing what the suburbs would have been like before the tornado struck. Pic: Ianm


Damaged homes and buildings after the tornado: Pic NOAA

As with many catastrophic emergencies, the death toll is not a good measure of how the community responded to this event.

The NWS report says: “Some people took shelter in appropriate locations, but did not survive. Others mistakenly drove their vehicles into the tornado path, but somehow lived to tell of it.”

The  NWS comprehensive survey receommended many changes to the warning system: the rest of this post is from the report. 

The team determined that a number of factors contributed to the high death toll. Through interviews with more than 100 Joplin residents, the team found that societal response to warnings is highly complex and involves a number of factors, such as risk perception, overall credibility of warnings and warning communications.

The report includes a number of key recommendations:

  • Improve warning communications to convey a sense of urgency for extreme events. This will compel people to take immediate life-saving action;
  • Collaborate with partners who communicate weather warnings to develop GPS-based warning communications, including the use of text messaging, smart phone apps, mobile communications technologies, in addition to upgrades to the Emergency Alert System and NOAA Weather Radio;
  • Collaborate more throughout the weather enterprise to ensure that weather warning messages sent via television, radio, NOAA Weather Radio, local warning systems such as sirens – are consistent to reduce confusion and stress the seriousness of the threat; and
  • Continue to increase community preparedness


Bushfire evacuation

 Evacuations from hazardous areas are a standard part of the tool kit of the US emergency manager.The protocols vary from place to place, and they are still ironing out some of the problems in some areas. It doesn’t appear to be a universal or mandatory obligation.

Evacuation route in Washington DC. The public is expected to know when a “snow emergency” is declared, and then not to park on these routes to enable the snow ploughs to operate unimpeded. Cars would be towed away for the ignorant.


Tsunami evacuation route sign, waterfront, San Francisco

Uptown Manhattan.

There are many times an evacuation isn’t possible: tornadoes and rapidly moving fires come to mind.  Evacuations are, however, a significant and expected part of the warning system.

Like Australia police have various laws they can use to force people to evacuate, but in reality, they will be very reluctant to physically remove a person from their home if they want to try and defend it. Persuasion is their most effective tool. One Canadian emertency manager said: There are rules that can be put in place to remove children from dangerous places.” That soon convinces parents to follow.

An American emergency agency staff member said the following phrase  is persuasive:  “Before I go I need to know how tall you are so I can bring the right size body bag back.” 

The law is outlined in Community Wildfire Protection Plans, which are implemented in nearly all fire prone regions. This is from Lane County in California:


A county, city or municipal corporation may authorize an agency or official to order mandatory evacuations of residents and other individuals after a declaration of a state of emergency within the jurisdiction is declared. An evacuation under an ordinance or resolution authorized by this section shall be ordered only when necessary for public safety or when necessary for the efficient conduct of activities that minimize or mitigate the effects of the emergency

(ORS 401.309). BE AWARE; after a mandatory evacuation order goes into effect emergency responders will notrisk their lives to save you should you choose to stay at your home after the order

Evacuation procedures need to be planned and trained for. Many roads have warning signs along them which are opened only when an evacuation is in place, restricting travel on the whole road to one direction.

The public needs to know when to evacuate, and where to go. Clearly this is a business that needs good local pre-planning. Doug Gantt, Fire Manager Officer with The US Forest Service says: “You have to front load all this stuff.”

It is the decision of the Incident Controller who will advise the Sheriff that the fire threatens homes or a community, and the evacuation is carried out by law enforcement officers.

During the Pondarosa Fires, Shingletown was issued with a “voluntary evacuation notice,” which was superseded about two hours later by a “mandatory evacuation notice.”

Down at Manton when the fire was out of control and time was much shorter, things worked a little differently. One genteel soul told me (after advising me to cover my ears) “The sheriff’s car drove into my drive, sounded the siren, and he yelled:”You’d better get the fuck outta here.”

This is how the evacuation notices unfolded for the multiple fires in the Wenatchee Fire complex in Washington State from September 11, 2012. The web site contains all the details of the way the evacuations launched, ramped up, and then gradually were downgraded.

This is how the the first warning was posted on Inciweb:

Incident: Wenatchee Complex Wildfire
Released: 9/11/2012

Level 1, 2, and 3 Evacuation Status is akin to a “Ready, Set, Go” level of evacuation notices with Level 1 asking residents to be ready to evacuate if conditions change, Level 2 means residents should be set to go at a moment’s notice, Level 3 means authorities are advising residents to evacuate because their homes are in imminent danger (under Level 3, residents will not be allowed to return to their homes until fire danger decreases).

Evacuations remain in place for the following areas affected by the Byrd Canyon Fire:

· Downey Canyon – Level 1

· State Route 971 Navarre Coulee Road (east side) – Level 2

· State Route 971 Navarre Coulee Road (west side) – Level 3

· State Route 97A Tunnel to Davis Canyon – Level 3

· State Route 97A from Byrd Canyon to State Route 971 – Level 3

 The explanations at the top of the warning were inserted because the fire managers werent confident the community was fully aware of the evacuation procedures. No survey has been done about how many people evacuated, or when, but no-one died or was injured.

Over time the evacuation levels were reduced.