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


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