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.