Effectively Communicating Forecasts and Risks

Some of the hardest things you can do in effectively influencing behaviour in emergencies is to find the balance between risk, forecast, and actual impacts.  This has been heavily impacted by the rise of social media, and the ability for people to access products they’ve never seen before, and without interpretation, or a weighing of accuracy, can lead to undue concern or complacency.

A perfect example is looking at the Qualitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) models from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.  The forecasts are helpful if you understand that they aren’t gospel, especially when you get to the 5 or 7 day forecasts.  These can be helpful in determining the possibility of heavy rainfall, and even provide some clarity as to heavy concentrations, but shouldn’t be taken as a true representation of actual risk.  What we’ve also seen is that depending on the nature of the meteorological conditions creating the potential rainfall, they can be incredibly hard to predict.  This tweet from Dan Reilly, the Warning Coordination Meterologist for NWS Houston/Galveston shows a perfect example:

Leaders in meteorology, emergency management, and media need to be cautious with the power they hold.  Sharing these images without concurrent interpretation can cause a mis-balance of truth v. possibility.  A better strategy is to post a video where the image cannot be separated from the interpretation…

What are good ways to balance forecast with modeling?  How can we make messages actionable without causing undue concern?

Support for Diverse Communities in Emergency Public Information and Warning

When minutes count, the feasibility of having emergency messages immediately translated and disseminated to the correct population is a far reach even for the most resourced, effective organization.  Each step from message development to protective action has its own challenges, and with small staffing and budgets coupled with the limitations that come from existing EPI and warning systems, this can pose a challenge.

Identifying the Community

When developing a plan for meeting the immediate as well as long-term information needs of a community, one has to fully understand not only the raw demographics of a community, but also the cultural morays that exist in communication.  In some areas, with some groups, modifications to strategies used in the majority population may be required in order for the message to get through.  Some communities, especially those who come from backgrounds of extensive political corruption, turmoil, or even violence may not be keen to trust a governmental agency’s message, especially when it involves evacuation.

Things to Consider in Developing A Warning and EPI Strategy

How people understand information is very much tied to their cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds.  Starting with easily available data, such as that from the US Census Bureau, you can begin developing a picture of your community.  Ask questions such as:

  1. What languages are spoken in homes that are other than English?
    • This characteristic is not immediately indicative of an inability to speak English, there may still be some English-language proficiency within a population, especially those who have been established for multiple generations.  Thats where understanding the community outside of the data helps.
  2. How do people in diverse communities seek and receive information?
    • Does this community have a socially-based mechanism of communicating? Do they have their own media? Are they reliant upon English-Speaking household members, neighbors or friends for information?
  3. What are some barriers to communication within communities that may make it hard to reach?  
    • In many places, especially large cities, we are too heavily reliant on technology to fill in information gaps.  TV/Radio/WEA/Text Messaging are all great tools for hitting large swaths of the population, but an over-reliance on these can result in an unequal distribution of this information across the social and demographic spectra.
  4. Who are the people these communities trust for information?
    • Identify advocates from within the community that can easily be called upon to ensure information is provided to specified populations in a way that is trusted.

Develop Strategies to Provide for Communities Ahead of Time

Information in Multiple Languages

In Houston, we’ve worked to ensure that essential information is provided in multiple languages to our diverse community.  In fact, we have an Administrative Policy (AP 2-11) that outlines the process and requires each department to have a language access plan in place.  In Houston, we’ve identified the top 6 languages spoken as English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic and French. All essential information is to be translated into these languages, where feasible.  We have also begun ensuring that much of this information is interpreted into American Sign Language (ASL).  Following the April 2016 flood, we developed a two-page “After the Flood” brochure in each of these languages so that we would easily have access to information for affected residents in these groups.  It includes information on cleaning up flood-affected homes and businesses, accessing FEMA assistance (when available), and consumer protection:

We also reached out through our Department of Neighborhoods to identify community organizations within affected communities who could provide this information to those isolated language groups affected by flooding.

New York’s Warning Model

New York City has done a phenomenal job of getting emergency messages translated and distributed in multiple languages.  Many of their NotifyNYC messages have been pre-translated and refer back to the original message.

So even if you can’t specifically translate each message as it happens, knowing that there will be some basic messages that will stay the same, you can develop the content, pre-stage it, and use it in your alerts.

For the most part, locations (such as addresses, landmarks) will be relatively recognizable in different languages, so specific locations generally do not need to be translated.

Other Best Practices?

Are there other best practices out there?  Leave a comment and let me know.  As we all work towards the same goal; providing timely, effective information to the public when it matters most, sharing strategies will become vital to us.



Planning for the next attack, how France stood ready to meet information needs following the attack in Nice.

Planning for the next attack, how France stood ready to meet information needs following the attack in Nice.

Sitting here absorbing the news of another  brutal, disgusting attack on sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends in Nice, France, I can’t fathom what it would be like to be in the middle of it.  In these types of situations, I find myself truly mourning for those who are suffering loss, and also feeling a deep sense of camaraderie with those who are charged with jumping into the chaos, confusion and pain and delivery life-saving and heart-soothing information.

What I’ve seen from my colleagues in France has been an incredible amount of preparation, coordination and service provided through the various communication mediums.

It looks like steps taken following the Paris attacks have resulted in a more prepared communication structure in French response.

One of the things we always have to communicate is what the government is doing, and explaining processes to the public that we live with and understand every day, but are brand new to them in a crisis.

The  Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement international  (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development) tweeted this graphic yesterday to show each of the roles that federal departments play in an attack response.

It’s clear that this graphic wasn’t developed in the heat of the battle.  Having this type of information developed ahead of time limits the stress on your public affairs staff when tragedy strikes.

Rumour Control

One of the key elements of JIC/JIS operations is monitoring and countering rumors.  I don’t think anyone has ever suggested an approach that works to prevent rumors from starting in the first place.  The French Government posted this graphic (again, pre-designed) which discourages the sharing of rumors related to the incident.

Rough Google Translation: “”Act in a Responsible Way; during the crisis/ Avoid spreading rumors/ Only relay messages from accounts that you know and you trust, including the official accounts. Disseminating unconfirmed, potentially inaccurate  information and may slow deployment of relief and put lives in danger. Check your sources rather than hastily  relay information. This may help the emergency services”

Victim Identification and Maintaining Human Decency

In our social media-infused world, especially in high-emotion times, peoples’ sense of right, wrong and appropriate can become skewed.  At a recent seminar our region hosted on mass casulaty events, we discussed the importance of limiting victim information until next of kin could be notified in an appropriate, respectful way.  Unforutantely, in some cases, family members and friends have been “notified’ of the death of someone through social media.

To counter this, the French National Police issued the following tweet, which I translated and re-tweeted:

Additionally, we know the toll that these types of events, and the graphic images generated from them can cause on the mental health of victims and even those unassociated with the event.  As a father, I’m seeing images of children’s bodies covered in a blanket on a street and having to hold back tears and rage.   We must also remember, that as a society, we need to shield our children from the horrors of the brokenness of this world until they are mature enough to process what they are seeing.  This was something that the National Police had thought of, and even produced an English-language graphic to detail it:

Crowdsourced Suspicious Activity Reporting

One of the things I think is an excellent tool is to open up social media SAR (Suspcisious Activity Reporting) to the public.  We often tell folks that if they “See Something, Say Something (R)”.  This is often in the context of physical security, and suspicious physical or economic activity.  The French government has set up a website that allows people who may have seen something suspicious on social media, the opportunity to report it to French authorities. This may be a best practice to implement here.

Consistency and Credibility

imagerep01The French government already has a pretty robust graphic identity, which uses the revolutionary symbol of Marianne to convey a consistent, unified image across the government.  Throughout the response, I’ve also seen a very simple concept in place.  The use of a pre-determined template for phone numbers and other key information to be shared with citizens that reflects the existing branding which french citizens can recognize.

Some may argue that it a crisis is not the time to be thinking of branding and identity.  I would argue that it is the perfect time to put your brand to work.  In the straw heap that is social media when a disaster strikes, a user sifting through feeds and information should be able to quickly discern between official and unofficial sources.  If you’ve worked on establishing your brand ahead of time with your citizenry – they will likely recognize your message as official, and will place more trust that the information you provided is accurate.
That being said, it requires you to 1) have a brand and 2) use consistent branding techniques to establish your organization as a key player and/or authority in the community.


Moving Forward

This will, unfortunately, not be the last terrorist attack we see, and the reality is that the next one could be here.  As public communicators, we have a role and responsibility to share information that helps empower people in these types of tragedies, and help guide the broader, societal response in a way that limits the mental and emotional stress on the people we serve.

It would be smart of us to prepare now for the worst, and be ready to fill that gap when its needed.

Emergency Public Information Structures

NIMS, ICS, NRT, JIC, JIS;  As public affairs professionals in emergency response, we’ve come to know and understand a variety of anagrams, acronyms and jargon.  We’ve been told that NIMS (the National Incident Management System) is how we should operate – in a purely Incident Command System (ICS) structure, using the National Response Team (NRF) Joint Information Center (JIC) model, which tells us how to operate the Joint Information System(JIS)… the problem is, there are often situations where a formal Joint Information Center is not possible, and may have to be structured to meet the political and operational objectives of a response.

Unified Command or Not?

Unified Command, as defined by NIMS, is a fantastic way to approach singular responses.  As ICS, which is the backbone of NIMS, was developed by wild land firefighters, it’s uniquely designed to deal with a specific incident, in a specific area, within a specific time period.  But a majority of responses that emergency public information officers are engaged in will exceed a specific jurisdiction, specific geographic area, and will have effects across an entire area.  When severe weather, such as a flood, hurricane or heat wave strike – you’re not seeing a specific footprint and singular incident you can control – you’re seeing effects across the entire region.

The big, hairy elephant in the room is politics.  Some governments and agencies, especially smaller and medium-sized organizations,  are very adept and unifying with a neighboring jurisdiction and acting under a single authority.  The problem is, the larger, more complex those organizations are – the more difficult it becomes to quickly “switch off” the normal, day-to-day culture and “switch on” the unified, singular structure.

Oftentimes, we find ourselves coordinating across jurisdictional lines, rather than integrating our responses.  Is that bad?  Are we terrible emergency managers for doing that?  Not necessarily.  Many times it is whats needed to keep the ship afloat – to keep everyone on task.  Developing structures that coordinate, rather than control are often the best.

Public Information in Multi-Jurisdictional Settings

Does this mean that everyone sets up their own structures and doesn’t talk to each other?  Absolutely not… Oftentimes, you have to find a “sweet spot” that blends the need of retaining political autonomy, and finding a unified “voice” when dealing with large-scale incidents.  Coordination via phone, email, text, or in person can still happen without people operating under a unified command structure.  Ensuring that language is the same or similar, that protective actions are clearly defined and done in consistent, predictable language, and ensuring that the release of information an be timed to meet the incident objectives can still be done.

Undoubtedly, there will be differences of opinion, and it will be the job of the lead PIO for each jurisdiction to make judgement calls to attempt to ensure that the consistent message is going out, but it won’t always be perfect.

Forming a coordination structure that lies outside of a formal JIC is often the best way to do this.  In longer-term incidents, it’s often required to have a joint conference call to coordinate information across an area and ensure that messaging and timing is consistent.

Additionally, in the world of social media, sharing each other’s information is often as easy as the click of a mouse.  Some agencies will have louder, more pronounced voices, and it is their responsibility to ensure that smaller, less visible agencies still have their voices heard.  Sharing information with media and the public that is not necessarily “owned” by you – and directing those people back to their official sources of information is critical in incidents.

Working together to ensure that the public knows where to get the best information for themselves is crucial.  A best practice is to develop a web presence that links people back to their individual communities, so that if they come upon an account that isn’t specifically their community – it can serve as a way to connect them to their official sources of information (see readyhoustontx.gov/partners.html)

Figuring it Out

This isn’t something that can be done in the middle of the fight.  Work ahead of time to ensure that connections are made, emails are being shared, and structures exist for the coordination of information in these incidents.  Stay.in.your.lane.  If it’s not your jurisdiction, or subject matter expertise – share the right information from the agency with that authority.

This process requires that egos be overcome in the interest of public safety.  We’re all ultimately on the same team.  Let’s find a way to remember that as we respond.

Alert Systems Aren’t Enough | How France, Norway and the UN are Trying to Tackle the Problem of Warning

Alert Systems Aren’t Enough | How France, Norway and the UN are Trying to Tackle the Problem of Warning


At a recent conference, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) demonstrated the need for effective warning infrastructures and processes to increase community resilience worldwide.

Among the notes, they included:

  • Technological advances in warning systems aren’t enough if people do not have a way to receive them.
  • People are less likely to comply with protective actions if they feel there isn’t sufficient infrastructure to support their activities of daily living (life shelters).
  • Warning theorists have to explain the benefits of developing effective warning systems in plain language.  If not, we risk decision makers, policy makers and the general public being unable to understand the risks v. rewards

UN Launches CREWS (Climate Risk Early Warning System) Initiative

“‘We can have the best warning system in the world, the best forecasts, but if the message doesn’t get through to the person on the ground then they’re really not much use,’ Mr. Alasdair Hainsworth, Chief of the Disaster Risk Reduction Services Division of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told the UNISDR Science and Technology Conference.

There is also concern that over 80% of least developed countries have only a basic early warning system and only four or five out of 40 small island states have an effective early warning system in place.

These shortcomings are to be addressed by the US$100 million Climate Risk Early Warning System (CREWS) which was announced at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March, 2015 supported by UNISDR, WMO , the World Bank and the French government.”


The aim of CREWS is to bring political and financial support to developing countries in an effort to help them get effective, sustainable emergency warning systems up.  CREWS doesn’t establish anything new, but rather, serves as a target and objective for the international community to work together to increase resilience worldwide. Lessons learned by the French Government, and other leaders worldwide will help bring about the necessary investment to help increase the penetration of effective warning systems where they don’t currently exist.

Where does America stand on this?  As one of the most developed countries with recent lessons in developing an Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), where do we start working with the international community to work towards saving lives?

Read the UNISDR report here.

Warning Method Selection and Changing Technology

One of the things I’m working on right now is developing an action plan for disseminating emergency warning through a newly purchased technology.  There are a variety of methods to disseminate emergency information, and depending on a variety of factors, alerting authorities have to choose where to post their messages.  Some of these methods have limitations, such as word limits, inability to transmit dynamic media (ie. videos, photos etc.) and lack of penetration in low-income or low-English populations.

Recently while attending the Houston Integrated Warning Team meeting (#HGXIWT – if you’re interested), NWS staff showed that research indicated that a majority of weather information is being disseminated by television and radio still.  I’m sure Emergency Management research would probably indicate a similar pattern.  What was interesting though, is that we are working on assumptions being made 5 years ago. (the article they referenced was from 2009).

My thought is this:  Can the research on warning and emergency public information dissemination keep up with changing technology?  Secondly, are we seeing research done in the quality of the messaging in each of these channels?

We may be chasing new technologies that seemingly have higher message penetration, and while the number of recipients might be there to prove it, are people actually trusting the information we send out?

What are actions we can take as alerting authorities to ensure that selection of the warning channel is appropriate given the demographics, social vulnerability and perceived credibility within a specific area?  Is that something that can be easily distilled into procedures and operating guidelines?

I think so, but it will take additional research in the areas of risk communication, hazard perception, warning method selection etc.  Also, in order for this type of research to actually matter, it has to go beyond the Academic echo chamber and be read and implemented by emergency managers across the corporate, local, tribal, state and federal spectrum.

Vulnerability and Technology in Emergency Public Information

Note: This blog post appeared as an article in the April 2013 version of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin

When emergencies occur, getting timely, accurate, and actionable information to the public is of vital importance.  The methods by which we generate warning messages, disseminate them to the public, and receive feedback on emergency situations have been, and should continue to be, informed by the demographics and unique natures of our populations.

Basic communication modeling suggests that we look at the circular nature of how people communicate to inform the choices of warning messages & methods. Assessments of the  strengths and limitations of a communicator, message, recipient and feedback method are all important to choosing the medium by which an emergency response official notifies the public of protective actions.

With the emergence of new technologies developed to enhance the ability to communicate with residents during an emergency, it is important to take a moment to step back and analyze their usability, availability, and relevance during a disaster.

Assessing Vulnerability

The development of plans for communicating with the public should follow the basic process by which emergency managers develop plans in all other functional areas. Rather than solely looking at physical and geographic hazard vulnerability, we should also look at the social characteristics of a population to better inform the message and medium in emergency public information.

Limitations in access to technology, English language proficiency, and societal stigmas have to be understood before selecting an emergency public information message and channel.  Having an informed understanding of your population, especially in areas with diverse cultures, languages, socio-economic statuses and other social characteristics; will help you in reaching the most people with the message you want to deliver, in a way they can trust and understand.

Working with publicly available data, emergency managers can develop maps, graphics and GIS analyses that inform them of these characteristics, and work towards developing policies for warning a population both in a  localized incident, and on a large scale.

Data can not be the only method by which we analyze vulnerability and ensure that our emergency public information efforts are effective. Understanding social mores, the relationship some groups have with government, and  cultural differences in the way people communicate and build community should also inform our pre-event, response and recovery messaging.   This is a daunting task for even a small jurisdiction, let alone a city of millions.  That is why it is important to engage community groups ahead of time, and develop relationships with social and moral leaders within these communities to act as an advocate for your agency, and to tap into pre-existing social structures for disseminating emergency information.

IPAWS and the Way Forward

In the United States, the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) has received much deserved praise for simplifying the process of issuing warnings.  As we go into our communities and educate them on the public-facing functionality of IPAWS, we can not afford to neglect the public’s social vulnerabilities, as well as the dependence of many of these systems on electricity and connectivity.

Previous disasters have shown us that when information infrastructure is compromised, the reach of technologically-based warning tools is severely limited.  Therefore, part of our community outreach strategies should be informing the public of technological limitations, and informing them of methods by which they can receive official, accurate and timely emergency information when power or connectivity is lost.

Understanding a community’s characteristics, including the availability of certain technologies and the relevance of an English-language message should be considered as we move forward in planning.

As emergency managers, we can write plans all day long – but if these plans aren’t based on the characteristics of our populations, they will have little effect on the reach and effectiveness of our messaging.

Technology plays a key role in the way we communicate with the public, and as our world becomes more and more connected, it provides emergency managers with more tools for quickly sharing protective actions and incident information. It also may help turn our populations into intelligence-gathering for our operations.  Looking forward to future advances of technology, we can see both the positives and negatives of an interconnected society, and working within our communities, we can build emergency public information programs which work toward meeting the needs of every resident.