(Ed. note: this posting originally appeared in the NOAA VLab version of the Community Forum on 12 Juy 2019)
Laura Myers, PhD
The Center for Advanced Public Safety
The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa
In my Vortex-SE study, “Collaborative Research: Understanding How Uncertainty in Severe Weather Information Affects Decisions,” I studied residents of Alabama to determine their local knowledge and awareness of weather vulnerabilities, their connection to the weather enterprise network, and their perceived strengths and gaps in weather warning communication. I used a longitudinal cohort approach to understand the changes in public perceptions over 18 months with the ability to classify households by critical variables, such as household type and household characteristics.
A major finding from the public perception analyses was the public’s interpretation of probabilities and uncertainty. In the days and hours leading up to severe weather events, the weather enterprise partners convey the probabilities and the uncertainties associated with the event. Understanding at what point in this process the public began to have confidence in the information and thereby began to take the situation seriously was enlightening. The five-day outlook provided by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) is not taken seriously until about the two-day mark. The public becomes more aware and tuned into their trusted sources from that point forward.
At that two-day point in the process, there are certain elements of the messaging that make a difference to the public and that draw attention to the forecast information. The public notes how they detect a change in the seriousness of the message at that point and they listen for that seriousness. They also desire an explanation of uncertainty to assist with their decision making. They do not want to interpret that uncertainty themselves. They have an element of trust in the messenger which increases their confidence in the message even when the message does not verify. Analyses that took place after the April 2011 tornadoes in Dixie Alley, revealed significant frustration over false alarms in Dixie Alley, but as weather enterprise partners began being more explanatory and dealt with uncertainty head on, that frustration has diminished.
The weather enterprise partners in Dixie Alley began changing their messaging after 2011 to include more of the elements that made a difference to the public and caused the public to become more aware and to take action. The weather enterprise partners, including broadcast meteorologists, NWS personnel, and emergency managers, used more visual images of previous events and real-time current images to capture attention. They improved their criteria for warnings and reduced false alarms. Over time, my research revealed that the public was becoming more knowledgeable about the warning process. A dialogue was happening between the weather enterprise and the public, in which the public was educated about the need for multiple warning modalities and having emergency plans to respond to the warnings.
As more warning modalities were suggested to the public, analyses of the usage and functionality of the modalities revealed the messaging content that was most useful to the public. Warning modalities function differently by context. WEA alerts, alert notifications, and mobile apps are the modalities used mostly by the public. Sirens and NOAA Weather Radio are also important to the public, depending on their needs for weather awareness. Television, visual imagery and their trusted sources at the NWS and local television stations are very important to the public. Radar imagery is used by the public no matter if they understand it or not. There is a need to educate them on the proper interpretation of radar.
The public indicates that particular content from their warning modalities is most useful in making their protective action decisions. The public wants information about location and timing. Location is critical because people do not want to change their behavior unless required. Timing is also a critical issue for the public because they want to know when they should prepare to take action. This research has indicated that location and timing are probably two of the most critical elements in the messaging process. The public also wants to know about potential impacts and how those impacts will compare to past events. The public tends to use previous events as a reference point to understand the severity and seriousness of impacts. These elements work best for the public when there is certainty, good timing information, and targeted location information. Many events, however, are not so certain, which makes it harder to provide useful information to the public. For example, the complexity of severe thunderstorms and severe thunderstorm warnings needs to be explained to the public. They need to know that severe thunderstorms can create straight-line winds that can do as much damage as a tornado.
Calls to action are also important in warning messaging. Direct calls to action provide guidance when the time is right. The public does not want to have to figure out what to do when the messaging emerges. They put a significant amount of trust in their weather authorities. Broadcast meteorologists and other weather professionals provide preparedness information in advance of severe weather, indicating what the public should do when the time comes. This preparedness information is often provided through television broadcasts, website content, and especially social media content. Relevant calls to action are included in that content and when the actual messaging is disseminated those calls to action are found in the message. The public knows what they should do and why they should do it. They do not have to think about it at the time of the crisis. Just act! Follow your plan!
A significant element missing in messaging appears to be the “all clear” indicator. The public perceives there is minimal information provided regarding when the danger has passed. They may come out of their shelters too soon or they may stay too long in their shelters and become agitated because they do not know when they will be safe. They are likely not to take shelter in the next event.
However, people mostly feel they have been warned properly. They appear to understand probabilities and uncertainties with the weather warning process. When asked about false alarms, they are not unhappy with that outcome. They understand that meteorology and forecasting is not a perfect science and they know that their weather enterprise has done everything they can to reduce the number of false alarms. There is a small percentage of the public who do complain when they think weather professionals “got it wrong.” But for the most part, the public feels they have been prepared for weather events and that overall, the messaging process helps them decide what they should do.
A significant issue with the warning process is reaching vulnerable populations. Every community has people who are somewhat disconnected from communications and who also believe they have no way to make themselves safe from weather events. It is essential that connected and disconnected populations be identified and taken into account in every community. The weather enterprise partners work very hard to enhance communication for both populations in their communities. It is much easier to enhance communication for the connected populations through various technologies and communication techniques than it is to reach disconnected populations. Cell phones and mobile applications have become very common warning modalities, but some people do not have nor use these technologies effectively. And even when they do possess these technologies, they do not know how to use the information or in some cases they do not know what the information means to them. For example, people living in mobile homes have reported that they received the WEA alert on their phone indicating they should take shelter. These people report that they did not understand that the WEA alert was meant for them at their location, so they did not take action. They also indicate that they did not have a plan to shelter which would involve having to leave their mobile home for a stronger shelter.
These results have been shared with local emergency managers and National Weather Service personnel who want to find better ways to reach these disconnected populations. This research suggests that the weather enterprise should create profiles of the disconnected to develop plans for reaching them and assisting them with responding to warnings. People with mobility issues, language differences, and communication difficulties, such as deaf and hard of hearing populations, have to be reached in unique ways.
One solution that has emerged in some communities is the use of nodal networks to enhance weather information communication. Understanding how to better reach disconnected populations involves determining how these populations currently communicate within their neighborhoods. Where do they get their information? Do they get it from friends and family, from church members, radio, word-of-mouth? Are there language challenges in these communication networks?
Once there is an understanding of current communication networks, the weather enterprise partners can then determine how best to disseminate information to the major nodes in these networks for further dissemination within their networks. This takes a lot of effort to accomplish, but many of the weather enterprise partners in Dixie Alley are developing efforts to do so.
Enhancing communication with disconnected populations is critical. However, it is essential that all populations are educated about their sheltering options. When interviewed, many people indicate that they had no emergency plan and no sheltering options. It is important to share with them that they do have sheltering options and that they can use an emergency plan that works for them. They often indicate that they do not have a personal home shelter and they cannot transport themselves to a community shelter. When they are told that there are options within their home where they can survive, they are surprised. It is important to help them understand what their best options might be and help them identify a plan that works with their particular situation. If they cannot transport themselves to a better shelter, then they need a plan in place to have someone assist them with their transportation needs.
The methods of communication used to reach all populations have been enhanced in recent years. Television and radio have traditionally been the primary methods of communication. Now, social media, alert notification systems, cell phones, and other technologies are being used to convey warning information. So, how useful are these new methods and how useful is television today? Broadcast meteorologists have enhanced their efforts with social media, sophisticated graphics and analytics, as well as community outreach. Many of the television stations in Dixie Alley go to wall-to-wall coverage as an event is approaching.
The public indicates that it is typically the other modalities that drive them back to the television. They receive information through an alert notification, siren or a mobile app which causes them to turn to their television to see how serious the event is and to see whether it will affect them. A critical issue with all of these modalities, as well as the television, is to provide location, timing, and impact information. Words, images, graphics, numbers, and other forms of communication are used to quickly convey location, timing, and impacts. The colors used in the graphics can be inconsistent across modalities and even across television stations which can create confusion for the public. The colors chosen to represent seriousness, severity, location, and even timing can be confusing because people interpret the colors to have meaning. While numerous colors are used, the public indicates that just a few colors mean something to them. The color “red” conveys the most seriousness, followed by orange and yellow. Other colors are much less meaningful and generate different interpretations, so color choice is extremely critical and requires more research attention to help inform this process.
Conveying location is often accomplished with mapping graphics. Showing a map, typically a county map, briefly with color graphics or other overlaid images is intended to help people identify the impacts approaching their location. This research reveals that the public has a difficult time determining their location on these maps. It is not that they do not know where they live, but rather they are trying to figure out where their location is on a brief graphic. If the public is educated pre-event about the mapping graphics that will be used and they are asked to find their location pre-event, then the public finds these maps more useful.
After the tornadoes in 2011 in Dixie Alley, many of these new modalities were adopted and efforts were made to enhance all forms of communication. The weather enterprise partners educated the public about using these modalities and also taught them how to understand the information being provided. This has created a two-way communication process between the public and the partners, both pre-event and during the event, in which the public will ask the partners for individualized answers to their questions. Such questions include “Will this by like April 27th, 2011?” or “What about my location?” The partners attempt to answer these individual questions, as well as answer those questions in such a way as to answer all the questions that the public may have. This has led to a significant pre-event burden for the partners. In the days and hours ahead of an event, in a time period where the partners are gathering data and communicating with each other to prepare, they are now responding to queries to the point of exhaustion. They find themselves worn out and exhausted by the time of the actual event, which may span a significant amount of time. The partners worry that they are not at their fullest potential when they need to be, as the event unfolds. The partners are using these research results to make their messaging more consistent and to provide the information most needed by their publics with the goal of reducing the need for so many individualized responses. These research results have been provided to these partners to help them improve their pre-event communication in order to reduce this burden. Knowing that location, timing, and impacts are important, as well as providing the explanations of uncertainty, has helped reduce this burden significantly.
The results of this research add to the social science weather research discipline through the examination of forecasters, broadcasters, emergency managers, and publics before, during, and after severe weather events. This research focused on integrating these partner communication networks to reveal the often unexpected and underutilized special “local knowledge” that these partner networks already have at hand – special knowledge about local weather and seasonal climate patterns; knowledge about particular populations, especially vulnerable populations; knowledge about local understandings of and vulnerabilities to severe weather – that can be used to improve the flow of information within these networks and the efficacy of decisions made to protect life and property.
The results of this research include social science teaching and training of weather enterprise personnel on these results for use in their messaging, forecasting, and dissemination activities and are being used to transform the functionality of products and services designed to warn the public about weather. The types of information needed by the public to take appropriate action in severe weather events are being integrated into physical, institutional, and information resources.