Public Safety During Extreme Weather, Disasters

Our ability to observe and predict severe weather events and other disasters has improved markedly over recent decades, yet this progress does not always translate into similar advances in the systems used in such circumstances to protect lives. A more cohesive alert and warning system that integrates public and private communications mechanisms and adopts new technologies quickly is needed to deliver critical information during emergency situations. At the same time, better understanding of social and behavioral factors would improve the ways we communicate about hazards, inform response decisions such as evacuations, develop more resilient urban infrastructure, and take other steps to improve weather readiness.

Two reports by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine propose steps to improve public safety and resilience in the face of extreme weather and other disasters.

Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions examines how government systems such as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) will need to evolve as technology advances. The transformation of these alert systems should be informed by both technological and social and behavioral sciences research, the report says.

Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise emphasizes the need for government agencies, industry, and academic institutions involved in the weather enterprise to work together to more actively engage social and behavioral scientists, in order to make greater progress in protecting life and enhancing prosperity. While efforts to improve physical weather prediction should continue, the report says, realizing the greatest return on investment from such efforts requires understanding how people’s contexts, experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes shape their responses to weather risks.

Evolution of Emergency Alerts System Based on Technological Changes and Behavioral Factors

As technology advances, government systems such as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) will need to evolve, and their transformation should be informed by both technological and social and behavioral sciences research, says Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions, one of the reports released today.

Emergency alerts and warnings are sent out by government agencies through broadcast media and WEA. But the report notes that the information ecosystem has broadened to also include a wider variety of delivery mechanisms including first-person reports on social media platforms. Private companies like Google and Facebook are also collecting information from emergency management agencies to issue notifications. The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report said government-designed systems need to fit into this larger structure of communication.

The committee envisioned an integrated alerts system that continually takes advantage of new technologies and knowledge emerging from events and research. Emergency managers should increase the use of WEA and incorporate current knowledge of how the public responds to emergency notifications to craft more effective alert messages in the near future. Those agencies and private companies responsible for evolving and implementing IPAWS and WEA should adopt newer delivery and geotargeting technologies in the next several years.

The report outlines key research questions and other areas of study. One example is to improve geotargeting by performing more research to determine the best ways to graphically display the location of an individual in a risky situation and how visualizations can be used to best illustrate the location of the message receiver relative to the area of impact. The committee also recommended exploring message characteristics like length and content when communicating about an emergency situation, how best to transmit information in multiple languages, and how to make public education campaigns regarding disaster alerts more effective.

There are also several challenges in building an effective alerts system, the report notes, such as slow adoption of new systems because of gaps in funding or expertise, the challenge of adapting to ever-changing technology, and limited opportunities for engineers, social science researchers, and emergency managers to frequently interact to apply current knowledge or fill gaps in understanding.

Improving the Weather Enterprise with Social and Behavioral Sciences

Weather forecasts and warnings are being made with greater accuracy, geographic specificity, and lead time, which allow people and communities to take appropriate protective measures. Yet, as recent hazardous weather events have illustrated, social and behavioral factors – including people’s contexts, experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes – shape responses to weather risks, says Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise, the second report released today.

The committee that conducted the study and wrote this report noted that as efforts to advance meteorological research continue, it is essential for government agencies, industry, and academic institutions, all part of the weather enterprise, to integrate social and behavioral sciences into their work. This report suggests strategies to better engage researchers and practitioners from multiple social science fields to advance those fields, to more effectively apply relevant research findings, and to foster more cooperation on this endeavor among public, private, and academic sectors.

A better understanding of social and behavioral aspects of weather readiness will help us not only to design more effective forecasts and warnings but also to reduce vulnerability and mitigate risks of hazardous weather well before an event strikes and to better support emergency management and response efforts.

The report includes a special focus on social science research related to road safety, given that road weather hazards are by far the largest cause of weather-related deaths and injuries in the United States, An estimated 445,000 people are injured and 6,000 killed annually due to weather-related vehicle accidents. Understanding why people choose to drive during hazardous weather can help in developing better strategies to discourage risky behavior. Better understanding how drivers get weather-related information can help better inform people who encounter dangerous conditions such as icy roads or low visibility while already in transit.

Many innovative social science research activities to date have made demonstrable contributions to the weather enterprise. But new insights are often not routinely applied in practice, and building a solid base of knowledge has been hampered by small-scale and inconsistent investments in these efforts. The report finds that limited support for research in this area has made it difficult to sustain a critical mass of robust studies, let alone expand research capacity. Making greater progress in advancing interdisciplinary work among physical and social science researchers also requires that meteorologists and other weather professional have a more realistic understanding of the many disciplines and research methodologies within social and behavioral sciences; of the time and resources needed for robust research; and of the inherent limitations in providing simple, universally applicable answers to complex social questions.

NOAA will need to play a central role in driving this research forward in order to achieve the agency’s goals of improving the nation’s weather readiness, the report says. The committee detailed several possible mechanisms for the agency to advance its capacity to support social and behavioral science research, including innovative public-private partnerships for interdisciplinary weather research and creating social science-focused research programs within NOAA’s Cooperative Institutes. Other federal agencies that are needed as key partners in this work are the National Science Foundation, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security/FEMA.

Some examples of critical research needs highlighted in this report include: understanding how forecasters, broadcast media, emergency and transportation managers, and private weather companies interact and create and disseminate information; understanding how to better reach and inform populations that are particularly vulnerable to hazardous weather; and understanding how new communication technologies affect message design and are changing people’s weather information access, interpretations, preparedness, and response.