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Demistifying the Message to Create Effective Emergency Alerts

Understanding social science research on emergency warnings is key to developing alert and warning plans that grab the public’s attention.

In August 2010, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said addressing emergency warnings means addressing the needs and perceptions of the populace, not nuts and bolts. Photo courtesy of Bill Koplitz/FEMA
Photo courtesy of Bill Koplitz/FEMA
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told those refusing to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005 that, “Perhaps they should write their Social Security numbers on their arms in indelible ink.” But most still didn’t get the hint. It’s a fact: Many people ignore public warnings.


Emergency alert and warning is part of the vital suite of programs emergency managers use to communicate with the public. But communication can be tricky: It is a two-way process of mutual understanding. When it becomes a one-way process of pushing information, it’s no longer communication.

Peer-to-peer communication is still among the most effective ways to disseminate warnings because it is social media in its most primal sense — information disseminated through social interaction. The best-known social media technology is still the back fence (or the water cooler or the local coffee shop), and social science research demystifies the process by explaining why it works.

Effective emergency public warning plans should be built on something more than “that’s how it’s always been done.” Emergency managers should take advantage of social science research, marketing techniques and risk communication principles.

How can that research be incorporated into today’s planning, especially if the official guidance we depend on doesn’t include it already?

Selling the Message

Emergency managers need a different perspective to help merge those concepts into effective emergency notification, warning and alerting plans.

Most emergency managers are good at information management. However, managing information isn’t the same as selling your message. It isn’t communication with those audiences, because there’s no feedback loop — it’s one-way from the agency to the public.

Most agencies and jurisdictions have some kind of system in place to warn the public of an impending disaster and they use it occasionally, including for tests. Still, there many stories about the public ignoring official emergency warnings.

“Information management is not the same as attention management, and emergency managers are not taught the difference,” said Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant with Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley.

Attention management is the art of refocusing attention. We all have limited attention budgets, and the trick is determining how to refocus some of the public’s attention budget on our life-and-death issues.

Developing alert and warning plans that grab the public’s attention requires understanding the definitive social science research on emergency public warning. The paper Communication of Emergency Public Warnings was written by Dennis Mileti and John Sorensen in 1990, but has been proven many times since. It suggests that people go through a well defined warning response process between hearing a warning and actually acting on it.

Emergency managers are no different from the public. They too have an attention budget and it is painless to take the easy route, especially when there are many vendors willing to help make a choice. Emergency warnings to the public compete with a limited attention budget, differences in interpretation and distrust of the government.

Botterell sees this problem as surpassing the attention budgets or technology. “We assume we have the authority to wag our fingers at the public with great vigor and tell them what to do,” he said. “And then express frustration when they don’t listen. Well, nobody told them they had to listen.”

During his keynote speech at the 2010 International Association of Emergency Managers conference, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said: “Most of the training I’ve seen, even in FEMA, we talk about nuts and bolts, we never talk about the people we are trying to help and what their perceptions are. It goes back to [doing] what is easy for us.”

Emergency managers resist changes from the mass media mindset, according to Botterell, where they send messages out the way they have for the past dozen years and just expect the public to obey. “We act as if we have the authority, and we don’t think we have to persuade them anymore,” he said.

Many emergency managers still think of emergency warnings as an initial blast and don’t think of following through by monitoring public interpretation or people’s need for additional information. Public expectations are changing from getting news a few times a day or even every few hours to wanting information immediately.

Avenues to communicate emergency warnings to the public have changed dramatically. Warnings once delivered with sirens and over radios now include e-mails, text messages and other social media. There are many advantages — one being the potential to respond more quickly and engage citizens more thoughtfully.

The downside for emergency managers is keeping up with newer social media technology, learning how to use it effectively and finding time to put it in place. For once, the upside is the cost, which is almost free once they get past the learning curve.

Keeping Up

Johnson County Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Kansas has an active program to communicate with the public that uses Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blog Talk Radio, Flickr, blogs and others. Adam Crowe, assistant director for community preparedness, said the county has just a few hundred followers on its social networking sites, but that number spikes each time an event happens.

“We never intended it to be a replacement for getting warnings out; it was always intended as a supplement,” Crowe said. “We still can’t rely on only one method, but we have to be able to keep up with what is going on.”

Crowe also recognizes that this will all be different in 20 years. Not everyone uses social media technology as an emergency alert and warning source, but it is growing exponentially. Even so, he said one of the county’s goals is to be practical and tailor what it does to the audience.

Mileti, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, stresses that communication basics don’t change and sees social media as a
useful tool that isn’t being taken advantage of.

“People still need to hear, believe and confirm information — that is hard-wired. Social media
facilitates and speeds that process up,” Mileti said. “Social media changes the world, but it doesn’t change how people are wired.”

How do emergency managers incorporate this research and information into their planning? Mileti said the problem is that nobody is telling the local practitioners how, and FEMA should provide it in its guidance for emergency managers.

“[Local practitioners] plan for disaster response, they don’t plan for public warnings and then wind up making it up as they go,” Mileti said. “There are major needs in alerting and warning. The planning guidance FEMA provides is inadequate for letting local emergency managers ‘splice’ in the social science research.”

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager, certified business continuity professional and an instructor/lecturer for California State University, Long Beach. She also writes the Disaster Academia blog for Emergency Management’s website at

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.