Improving Risk Communication to Save Lives and Property during Disasters
Effective communication can save lives and reduce economic damage during the response and recovery phases of a disaster. Despite widely available information on creating effective risk communication and warning messages to elicit desired public outcomes during and following disasters, communication attempts fail too often.
For example, on May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people. Many residents were slow to heed the timely tornado warning due to alert fatigue. Additionally, many residents sought signals – such as physically seeing the tornado or noticing if their neighbors were taking protective action – to confirm that this was not just a false alarm.
Similarly, in the months following the September 11th attacks, road fatalities increased on the East Coast, as individuals chose to drive instead of flying due to fear of terrorism – even though flying is one of the safest forms of transport. The sense of control people felt for driving over flying, combined with the perceived uncertainty of where and when the next attack might occur, drove this response.
Authorities did not anticipate the significant changes in travel patterns and its consequences and, therefore, did not develop a robust communication strategy to address travelers’ concerns.
Prior to drafting effective risk communications and warnings, emergency management communicators at the Federal and local levels must first understand how their communities perceive risks. Officials should consider:
· The public’s prior experience with the potential hazard (or lack of experience)
· The degree of trust they have in their authorities based on the handling of previous risk events
· Their demographic needs (e.g., primary language used)
· Behaviors and actions for authorities to encourage and discourage
Communicators must also be aware of their own effectiveness when communicating disaster warnings. While they may be adept at communicating the risks of more familiar hazards like hurricanes, they must recognize their limitations and understand how to handle less familiar risks – such as a chemical terrorist attack.
Risk communication is a two-way process. Disaster authorities must constantly respond to the evolving perceptions and needs of the communities they support. By integrating these factors, they can greatly increase societal resilience.
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