On the Nonfeasance of Your Warning Systems

Rick Russotti, from Mitigation Journal,
tweeted me a question on my feelings about what’s going on in Italy. No, not
that mess, this one:

Seven scientists and other experts went on trial on manslaughter charges
Tuesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a
devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in
2009.

Wait, what?

Yes, scientists are being prosecuted for not predicting the unpredictable.
My initial feelings are that this is BS. Unfortunately, in the court of
international justice, my feelings are obviously not taken into
consideration. My concerns, as a result, lean towards the ripples that this
event will cause. And boy do I worry about these ripples. Not so much
because of the Italian situation, but because of this NOAA report on the
Joplin tornado
(PDF):

The vast majority of Joplin residents did not immediately take protective
action upon receiving a first indication of risk (usually via the local
siren system), regardless of the source of the warning. Most chose to
further assess their risk by waiting for, actively seeking, and filtering
additional information.

Did you get that? Residents were warned, and because of the poor effect of
that warning, did not react in a protective manner. Almost like the Italian
situation (not exactly, you understand, but close). People died because they
chose not to heed the warning.

Now, what does that mean? Well, for us in the emergency warning and
emergency public information world, LOTS. NOAA has come to the conclusion
that the warnings employed immediately prior to an EF-5 tornado ripping
through a town were ineffective. Throughout the Midwest and South, those
very same systems are the primary means of warning people in the event of a
tornado. See where this could be problematic? Now think about what this
means in the context of what’s happening in Italy.

Wow.

Now, think about your emergency warning systems. How confident are you that
they’ll be effective? And realize the difference between working and
effectiveness. Your testing to make sure the system works may actually be
making the system less effective.

Now, you know me, I like to propose solutions when I can, so here’s my best
attempt. Review your current alerting systems. Write them all down. Honestly
write down the pros and cons. Take, for example, your siren warnings.
They’re familiar, and they work, but they’re also only auditory (so deaf
folks, and people with their car stereos too loud, and people with
headphones won’t get the warning), and they’re not made for people inside
buildings to hear, and they tend to over-project the warning (tornadoes are
only a tiny sliver of rotation, while a siren warns for miles), and they’re
non-specific (a specific criticism in Finding #2a in the Joplin report), and
well, they’re familiar and easily tuned out. Should this be your only means
of warning the public? Probably not.

So, let’s get some more warning systems. I would argue the most important
step is the aggressive implementation of a robust and constantly-manned
social media and text-messaging presence (used in concert with all other
forms of warning). Emergency warnings from these systems can be pushed to
the phones (which are a great and growing presence in the pockets and purses
of Americans), immediately alerting folks of dangers specifically (potential
storm, rotation confirmed, funnel traveling down Second Avenue, etc.), and
can be used as confirmatory messages (addressed in Finding #2d of the Joplin
report) due to constant updates in emergency situations.

(As for the reliability of these tools, it is important to note that no
system is infallible and may fail as infrastructure degrades or is
overwhelmed. It’s a concern that is not special to text messaging or social
media. In fact, more and more cases studies of recent disasters are showing the viability—if not
reliability—of social media in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In
fact, as shown in this blog post from Google,
Internet searches especially about a particular disaster are higher what
you’d reflexively think in the affected area. People who have been in a
disaster search for information on the disaster online.)

Since you’re here, you probably understand the need for integration of
social media into emergency notification, so I really don’t have to sell you
too much. But that one guy or gal, who’s probably in a key position, who
doesn’t believe that social media can help, or is a waste of time, or is
scary? Ask them if they’d rather start a Facebook page, or sit in court and
defend the idea that their using an antiquated warning system does not make
them guilty of manslaughter.

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3 thoughts on “On the Nonfeasance of Your Warning Systems

  1. Hehehe… I’m not going to make waves around the office and “ask them if they’d rather start a Facebook page, or sit in court and defend the idea that their using an antiquated warning system does not make them guilty of manslaughter.”I’ll pick that fight later.

  2. Professor Emeritus Dennis Mileti, PhD has spent most of his life studying WARNING and effective warning. Problem is that most of his effort came even before 24/7/365 news but still worth studying his analytical framework for warning. And of course the Partnership for Public Warning issued a national strategy for WARNING document in 2003. That document available on baseline reports on my VACATION LANE BLOG! I would think siren systems have aspects of both alerting and warning but there are differences. In Italy of course the battle will be over the science of PREDICTION! Or lack thereof. But hey can pigs fly?

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