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 [astills@optusnet.com.au] 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 https://ajem.infoservices.com.au/items/AJEM-29-03-09 on these dilemma’s by Sandy, and she then spoke to ABC Local Radio Far North Qld broadcaster Richard Dinnen, on July 23, 2014.

 

Defining “emergency broadcasting”

In the past two weeks I have met a group of people from Germany and talked about the needs of some pacific island states regarding issuing warnings to their community.

Issuing warnings in a repetitive way, with useful information that meets the needs of people involved in an emergency, is what I call “emergency broadcasting.” It’s not just issuing media releases and going to wall-to-wall or rolling coverage. That’s “news,”  and flow programming and it’s interesting and sometimes compelling but if it doesnt consider the needs of the community when they are facing the emergency, it’s not emergency broadcasting.

If the elements of emergency broadcasting are all considered alongside the content, then it will be more effective communication package to the community.

I needed to write a report defining emergency broadcasting to those unfamiliar with it.

Here is what I came up with. Does it make sense?

The aim of “emergency broadcasting:”

“Giving people information they could use to respond to an event before, during and after the emergency.”

It is conducted in partnership with emergency agencies, The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the media outlet, and is relevant in all natural hazards, and some man-made disasters such as human, animal and plant quarantine, civil unrest, active shooters, utility failure and toxic gas and chemical spills.

The principals of emergency broadcasting are:

  • Understanding the threat environment by all involved in emergency broadcasting.
  • Ensuring that all staff involved in EB includes, among other things: weather forecasting, the natural environment; the disaster history in the region; planning and undertaking emergency broadcasting; understanding human behaviour in disasters; understanding the response agency operations; sharing information.
  • The provision of formal and informal warnings and information to assist individuals to respond and recover.
  • To work in partnership with emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology to understand their operations and assist them to meet their goals.
  • To ensure that information can be provided even when no formal warning and advice are forthcoming.
  • To build partnerships with transmission agencies to ensure broadcast pathways are maintained and prepared.
  • To ensure that the information can be provided in a way which best suits the needs of the whole community regardless of language, age and cultural barriers.
  • To emphasise the need for a whole of community response to best survive and recover.
  • Regular review of all emergency broadcast activity in collaboration with emergency agencies.

The strategies to achieve these principals are:

Use of audio alerts, and effective headlines to ensure the listening and viewing audience knows that the messages are important.

Warnings provided in a way that is scalable depending on the level of the threat.

Education campaigns to ensure that the audience knows what the provision of emergency broadcasting includes.

Education campaigns to ensure they know what to do when they receive a warning.

The capacity to scale up content quickly.

Collaboration with technical departments to ensure transmission and technical services are aware of the emergency and can prepare.

Training of broadcasters to understand emergency agencies operations; basic weather forecasting; and to reduce stress and anxiety which can be problem when conducting an emergency broadcast.

Managers engage with State, District and Local disaster committees to build strong understanding, personal networks, and local capabilities.

Have I missed anything?

 

All I had was the radio – the need for radio when the power fails

Rachael Mead lives at Lobethal Road, Basket Range in the low hills outside Adelaide, in South Australia. Her husband was on a Country FIre Service volunteer truck during the unseasonal “Cherryville” bushfire which hit her valley in the first week of May. 

She has a bushfire plan. She moved the animals to another place when the fire started. She does not listen to 891 ABC Adelaide, (the emergency broadcaster) and was unaware of the sign on the freeway 10 km from her place that suggests she should listen to 891 in an emergency.

 She was not listening to the radio when the fire started as she was relying on her mobile phone access to the CFS website for information, but it eventually became apparent that she would lose power and access to the web site. She streamed 891 to her handset and walked around with it for a while, but then realised her phone battery would fail and she had no way of charging it. Rachael retrieved her battery powered radio from her “ready kit.”

 “I had never thought I would ever use that radio, but now I understand. I will have to change the batteries before every fire season, because without the radio I would have been lost. I would not have had information to enable me to stay and prepare. I would not have known when to turn the sprinklers on and to leave. I had seen the ribbon warnings on ABC TV in the past about other fires and thought that was a good idea, but I couldn’t watch TV when the power went off. The power was switched off by the power authority.”

 “I scanned the radio for a station broadcasting fire coverage, and came across 891 ABC Adelaide and thought because they were local they would probably have something. I waited until they did, and then had no reason to see if other stations had anything.

 “The half hour updates were accurate and useful in the most part. Coming at half hourly intervals meant I could go and do things and always come back at the right time, so I wasn’t glued to my kitchen bench and I could plan my actions.  It was very useful.

“When they came at  15 minute intervals and I also started receiving CFS alerts and the mobile phone started ringing more frequently and it was quite frantic, but then I found myself needing more and more information.

 “At one stage I contacted my husband on the CFS truck and he told me the information was inaccurate about where the fire had reached. They were discussing it quite a bit on the fire ground. I wondered who at the Uraidla Incident Control Centre was giving the radio the information.

 “I went up to the hill and watched the fire while listening on the stream. They were discussing dry cleaning with talk back, which was a bit surprising.

 “My neighbours were also listening to 891.

 “On Friday I had to change my fire plan when the power went out. I recall thinking they (891) were doing a very good job not inflaming the situation with inaccurate or sensationalist coverage. Some neighbours described to me that other media were quite sensationalist but I didn’t feel that with 891. They appeared to be very objective.

 “I cannot image how scared I would have been without the radio. I would have had to leave my house. It was a complete security to me. I was also in my house without even an animal for companionship.”

 “I was very worried about the forecast wind change on the Saturday and listened until 3pm, and recall thinking this was the first time I had ever listened to a footy game on the radio. I have no interest in football. It was the Richmond Tigers v Port Power. I remember thinking I would have appreciated more information during Saturday, as I was very worried about the wind shift.

 “I didnt check the websites after I turned on the radio because I had no power and needed to conserve my phone batteries.

 “The wind shift didn’t occur, and the rain almost started so I switched over the Poetica on Radio National, but when that finished I came back to 891 and listened to the news for any further information.”

 Rachael’s property was not affected.  

 http://redroomcompany.org/poet/rachael-mead/

 

 

The US National Weather Service considers changing warning language.

Developments in the US National Weather Service might influence the way weather warnings are issued in Australia. In any event discussion about the use of language can inform Australia’s hazard managers as they seek to improve warnings.

The US National Weather service is considering changing it’s warnings, in line with its aim to ensure more recognition for impact to be described when issuing forecasts.

This approach was taken by Australia’s bushfire and emergency experts in creating the National Bushfire Warning Framework. It’s interesting to consider how it might be included in weather warnings.

The NWS is gathering opinions from the public and weather product users to help guide the process, and in a promising move their approach highlights it’s relationship with the public – and its belief that people are capable of receiving and processing large amounts of data to make their own decisions.

It’s trialling a new system side by side with the present system, despite the obvious concern about confusion.

In its own words, it says it wants to have “a conversation” with users:

“In support of our Weather-Ready Nation initiative, NWS wants to start a conversation on how we might simplify and clarify our products. For this demonstration, we are proposing an alternative way to express headlines within our hazard messages, with winter hazard messages as a focus. If you have other ideas for simplifying and clarifying these messages, we want to hear them.”

The details are here:

The language used by the NWS in the US is very close to the language used in Australia. The principal enhancements are to headlines:

For all current, official winter weather hazard messages that lead with the phrase:

“THE NWS HAS ISSUED A _____ WATCH” it will say: “THE NWS FORECASTS THE POTENTIAL FOR ____” with the hazard type (snow, ice, wind, etc.), level of certainty, timing and expected impact(s) clearly stated in the blank space.

For all official winter weather hazard messages which lead with the phrase: “THE NWS HAS ISSUED A(N) ______ ADVISORY” it will say instead: “THE NWS ADVISES CAUTION FOR ____”  and for messages which lead with the phrase: “THE NWS HAS ISSUED A(N)______ WARNING” it will change to: “THE NWS HAS ISSUED A WARNING FOR A DANGEROUS______”

“We retain the term “Warning” for the demonstration because of its direct connection to protection of life and property, but this alternative approach would eliminate the individual hazard products within the Warning category.”

The NWS  will receive feedback early this year, and is proposing that it will revisit its approach to water and wind warnings if this proposal receives public endorsement.

 

 

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.

ends

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. http://www.colorado.edu/geography/class_homepages/geog_4173_f11/Sorensen_warning_systems.pdf

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. http://www.amemminnesota.org/library/2012-amem-conference-presentations

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… http://www.amazon.com/Human-Side-Disaster-Second-Edition/dp/1466506857

 

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.

www.global-cities.info

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 (rgordon@bigpond.com) 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.” )

 

Joplin tornado – Warnings

 The Joplin tornado neatly encapsulates all the problems inherent with multiple, simultaneous, complex emergencies. The US National Weather Service (NWS) was widely praised for its work. The relationship between the warning providers and the disseminators is crucial.  

 It is fair to say there is much soul searching at the NWS in the US when people die in weather related disasters. It’s the same in Australia, and no doubt everywhere else. Weather forecasters are scientists but they understand their work, at its best, will save lives.

The problems confronting the forecasters at Joplin were the same as those wherever  multiple simultaneous complex weather events occur. (I call these MSC events) For most of us that’s thunderstorms and hail forecasts, but the same problems were experienced by fire fighters during the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria in 2009 and to a lesser extent in the flash flooding of Grantham in Qld in 2011.

In the case of the Joplin tornado the public had to contend with the following bewildering array of events – and many in the disaster community will have an understanding of exactly this type of scenario:

– No big tornado for a generation, even though the town is in :”Tornado alley.”

– Thunderstorm forecasts consistently for two days

– Thunderstorm and hail forecasts all day

– Tornado watches issued a couple of hours before he main event

– Multiple tornadoes

– Two blasts on the town tornado warning sirens. 

These events create massive uncertainty, and warnings, unless very carefully compiled and placed in context and with a sense of priority, will lead to confusion and the public quite naturally will hesitate to act.

Remains of school, 16 months after the tornado Pic Ianm

This is how the NWS reported on warnings from the Joplin tornado – taken from its review. (Items in barckets are mine)

“A series of complex meteorological events and interactions took place during the afternoon hours of May 22 that eventually resulted in the devastating EF-5 tornado. A Tornado Watch  was issued at 1.30 pm for all of southwest Missouri.

A routine Area Forecast Discussion (a  type of weather service “heads up”)  was issued at 2.37 pm as well as  at 3.47 pm. Forecaster focus remained on very large hail as the main severe weather threat, but isolated tornadoes were also deemed a possibility due to the very unstable air mass in place and sufficient low level wind structure. The first thunderstorms of the day developed between 2 pm and 3 pm  over southeast

As severe storms moved east, forecasters became increasingly concerned about their tornado potential and issued the first Tornado Warnings of the day at 4.25 pm and 4.51 pm for counties west of Joplin. At 4.33 pm forecasters briefed the Jasper County (which encompasses Joplin) Emergency Manager on the severe storms to the west.

A tornado Warning was issued at 5.09 pm for western Jasper County, including the northeast part of the city of Joplin but was for a different storm than the one that eventually hit the city.

This alert was followed by a new Tornado Warning  at 5.17 pm CDT for the next storm to the south for southwestern Jasper County and portions of neighboring counties which included all of Joplin. (Another coordination call was made to the Jasper County Emergency Manager at 5.25 pm  to update him on the Tornado Warning and latest information concerning the storm.)

At this point, the severe thunderstorm west of Joplin had become the dominant thunderstorm in the region and was poised to produce a violent tornado. Based on storm surveys and radar imagery, it was estimated that initial tornado touchdown occurred just west of Joplin at 5.34 pm, moved into western portions of Joplin around 5.36 pm. The town had 17 minutes of lead time for touchdown and 19 minutes lead time before the tornado entered Joplin.

The first indication of a confirmed tornado was issued via another Severe Weather Statement at 5.39 pm that stated,

“At 534 pm CDT…trained weather spotters reported a tornado near Galena” and that “This storm is moving into the city of Joplin.” The tornado eventually dissipated around 6.12 pm.

Unfortunately, the tornado developed rapidly on the southwestern outskirts of a densely populated area and had moved through much of the city before the size and violence of the tornado was apparent to warning forecasters. They could not not issue a Severe Weather Statement with a “Tornado Emergency.”

Amongst the general public, the majority of residents had little idea there was a threat of severe weather prior to Sunday, May 22. About half of those interviewed, reported learning of the possibility of severe weather in the hours leading up to the tornado. Just less than half reported their first indication of a severe weather threat was in the moments just prior to the tornado.

 According to the (Joplin Emergency Manager, IM) the first 3-minute siren activation, at 5.11 pm resulted primarily from funnel cloud reports to the west of Joplin in southeastern Kansas (and was not based on NSW information! IM)

Residents heard the initial siren activation and then the warning details were provided by the emergency telephone system (called Reverse 911 – IM), and assumed the activation was for the area to the north. In one example, a man was clearly confused by the string of warning information he received and processed from various sources.

1. Heard first sirens at 511 pm CDT (estimated 30-35 minutes before tornado hit).

2. Went to the TV and heard NWR warning from TV override that indicated tornado near airport drive 7 miles north of his location.

3. Went on porch with family and had a cigar. Looked like a regular thunderstorm.

4. Heard second sirens (estimated 27 minutes later).

5. Thought something wasn‘t right so went inside and turned local TV stations on.

6. Saw on TV several colored counties for tornado warnings, but regular programming was still on and thought the threat was still to the north.

7. Heard his wife yell “basement,” Grabbed the cat and told son to put his shoes on.

8. Tornado hit as they reached the top of the basement stairs, destroying their home.