Extreme weather forecasts can save lives — but that doesn’t mean the public always listens

Extreme weather forecasts can save lives — but only if people listen and respond. The best forecast is useless if people don’t act on the information, a reality that applies as well to emergency alerts. So we did a roundup on what experts are saying about why people ignore or respond inappropriately to weather warnings. 

Normalcy bias or optimism bias

Normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, as well as its potential adverse effects

Normalcy bias makes it difficult for us to engage in “worst-case” thinking and plan for a serious failure or disaster. This kind of bias causes people to assume that, although a catastrophic event has happened to others, it will not happen to them. People often base their decisions on previous experiences, such as other storms they’ve lived through. 

Part of the challenge is that forecasts are uncertain, so the area covered by a warning is necessarily larger than the area that’s actually affected. Most people who receive warnings don’t experience the actual event, which can cause them to discount future warnings.  For tornadoes, for example, meteorologist Dr. Kim Klockow-McClain puts it this way, “Even within a given event, less than 1 per cent of the spatial extent of a tornado-warned area will actually experience a tornado, and about 70 per cent of all tornado warnings will result in false alarms.”

The consequences can be deadly. In 2011, one of the deadliest tornadoes in US history in Joplin, Missouri, killed 158 people and injured more than 1,000 others. NOAA’s assessment of the relevant NWS warnings and forecasts found that some residents had become desensitized, and that “initial siren activation has lost a degree of credibility for many residents.”

About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias during a disaster. The normalcy bias can manifest in response to warnings about disasters and actual catastrophes.

The challenge of “probability” and how people process information

Translating weather risks and emergency alerts into terms the public can understand is important, but difficult. 

Dr. Marshall Shepherd – director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program – talked about this challenge on an NPR podcast “The Science of Extreme Weather” (The Pulse : NPR). 

For example, he talked about the “cone of uncertainty” – the projected path and intensity of a hurricane or tropical storm – a concept that can be hard for people to wrap their heads around and is often misconstrued. The cone suggests a 2 out of 3 chance that anywhere within that cone will be the center of the storm. For many people, this is not an easy idea to grasp.

In one example, a TV reporter went to grocery stores in Sarasota, Florida, 3 days prior to Hurricane Ian making landfall to see how people were preparing. The folks she interviewed were “just doing their regular shopping”. Nobody seemed especially worried. Sarasota was in the “cone of uncertainty”. 

Some experts believe that most people do not ignore the information they get in warnings.  Dr. Jen Henderson, with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences says, “…from the interviews and focus groups we’ve done, people are not complacent. They’re all taking action, it’s just not the actions we’d expect or we can see.”  Julie Demuth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research agrees: “For the most part, people don’t disregard weather warnings. But that doesn’t mean they’re always going to do what we want them to do.”

As a practitioner, it’s worth noting that the academics don’t all agree. Dr. Shepherd thinks the public and policymakers need to be trained on how to consume information better. But Susan Joslyn, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington disagrees. She studies the way people make choices when given weather information. “People can’t absorb and use information unless it’s tailored to how they’re thinking about it and their decisions. To evacuate or not.” Professor Joslyn believes that people can handle more complexity than they are given credit for. 

Despite the lack of consensus, we can hope that continued research will help make information more relevant and impactful.  As an article on the Weather Network puts it: “Bridging that gap — between basic weather information and peoples’ response to it — is a key area of research for the future of severe weather communication…”

There’s no easy solution to the challenges here. Data from the 2020 NHS Data Digest, suggests that the rate at which the adult population becomes prepared or maintains preparedness for emergencies has stalled over the years, despite the fact that extreme weather events are becoming more common and more extreme. So there’s a critical need to encourage, guide, and assist individuals and communities to move from thinking about a potential emergency and actually doing something about it. 

One benefit of emergency alert systems such as Hyper-Reach is that you can deliver information to residents in a highly localized and specific way. And you can use the alert system to tell residents exactly what actions you want them to take. 

Greater precision might give you the ability to communicate more effectively with the public. Dr. Joslyn’s research shows that most people can understand numeric likelihoods, so that if they’re told there’s a 20 or 30 percent chance of something happening, they make better decisions than they might have made without this information.

Joslyn’s work implies that it’s better for people to have the numeric information because they’re going to make their own estimates anyway, based on past experiences. If they’ve experienced false alarms in the past, they may end up underestimating the risk, but more accurate information about risks and uncertainty can reduce the misestimating – and that could save lives.

Taking the message to where people are – on social media

Traditional media such as radio and cable television, is on the decline, particularly among younger residents. More and more people are consuming content on social media. And that’s both a challenge and an opportunity for emergency managers trying to get their message out. 

We live in a world where 53% of Americans get their news from social media.  And that number is growing.

In 2022, there were an estimated 270 million active social media users in the United States. That’s about 81% of the total US population, a number that grew 12.5% compared to the previous year.

Facebook is the most popular social network in the US, with 228 million active users. There are 186 million active Instagram users, and TikTok is popular and growing among adults under 30.

The average Facebook user spends approximately 20 hours on the app per month and overall social media usage is estimated at more than 60 hours per month. 

With the development of modern society social media has evolved into a viable communication tool in all aspects of life including emergency notifications. And that’s why many Emergency Managers already use social media when sending important messages to their community. 

We agree that social media is a great tool to share your information if it’s used as an integral piece of an overall communication strategy. Here’s why:

  1. Milling. People automatically turn to social media and the Internet to gather more information to both learn new things and to confirm information they’ve received.  Emergency managers use the term “milling” to describe when people try to confirm an alert or other emergency communication. And social media is an important way for people to find confirming information. 
  1. Snowballs.  Social media gets repeated among its recipients, a phenomenon called the social media snowball effect.  Even if a post initially reaches only 10% of its intended audience, it has the potential to reach many times that number. People tend to share information they consider valuable with their friends and family and each of those recipients can share that information in turn.  And social media lets them do it instantly with only one click across different social tools
  1. Growth. There are more social media channels than there were 10 years ago and we’d bet good money there will be more in another 10 years. Two examples are TikTok and  Nextdoor. We are especially excited about Nextdoor because it’s built around neighborhoods, which makes it perfect for geo-targeted alert messages. And Nextdoor has a service for public agencies that lets you send messages to everyone in your jurisdiction without needing them to follow you. As one head of emergency services put it: “DO NOT ignore this platform.  It is growing and agencies who work with NextDoor have direct access to subscribers”  In fact, we’re so excited about Nextdoor, we built an integration, which you can read about here.

Some emergency notification providers think that social media should not be considered as an emergency notification tool because of some of its limitations. For example, one emergency notification provider argues that social media should not be used for sending out emergency alerts and community notifications because it does not reach people reliably. For example, a Facebook post will only reach people if they are connected to Facebook and had liked your page previously. Your posts might or might not appear in their news feed and you might reach only about 10% of your population. 

What this argument misses is that social media is one tool in a tool kit.  And you don’t use a hammer when you need to drill a hole. 

Social media can be a great tool for sharing information. But, you should not rely on it as your only means of sending out emergency alerts. Consider it as a part of your communication plan and use it in a bundle with other proven emergency communication channels such as:  text messages, calls, IPAWS WEA alerts etc. That way you will fill in possible gaps and cover as many people as possible. 

Hyper-Reach emergency notification system integrates with the most popular social media channels for sharing emergency & community alerts such as Facebook, Twitter and – now – Nextdoor.  We also give you access to every other tool, so you have the most powerful of toolkits. To discover more, book our demo.

More accessible emergency alerts for people with disabilities

To be as effective as possible, emergency alert and notification systems need to reach as many people as they can. This includes folks with access and functional needs, such as disabilities that make it difficult to respond to emergencies quickly. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines access and functional needs as including older individuals and people with physical, sensory, behavioral, mental health, intellectual, developmental and cognitive disabilities. Also included are people with limited English language skills, access to transportation, and/or financial resources to prepare for, respond to and recover from an emergency. And that’s a lot of people. 

According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), the United States counts around 61 million adults with disabilities. That’s about 1 in 4 adults, or roughly the population of Italy.

47.7 million of Americans have some hearing disabilities and 56.4 million people have some difficulty seeing.  Emergency alerts often overlook these vulnerable populations, which means that people with disabilities often encounter communications that are inadequate or effectively unavailable. This study by the National Council of Disabilities looked at several major disasters, including Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombings, and outlined these common barriers to effective communication during emergencies:

● Televised emergency announcements by officials that do not include American Sign Language interpreters;

● Inaccessible emergency notification systems;

● Inaccessible evacuation maps;

● Websites with emergency information that is not accessible to screen readers used by people who are blind or have low vision;

● Shelters at which no one is able to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing;

● Emergency communication using language that is inaccessible to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and people with limited English proficiency. 

According to this fact sheet on aging in the United States created by the Population Reference Bureau, the number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, and the 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise from 16 percent to 23 percent. And while many older people stay sharp and capable, an older population means more people with diminished eyesight, hearing, mobility and thinking skills. 

This Emergency communication survey from 2014 shows how people with disabilities received, verified, and shared emergency alert information during their most recent public alert:

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Because the survey is a few years old, we believe that the use of smartphone apps, IM and other web-based services has increased. But the general point remains: the more notification channels you use the better your chance to cover those with access and functional needs.  As the National Association for the Deaf puts it “There is no “one” system that is best for alerting citizens in an emergency. …the message should be sent out to as many people and in as many formats as possible (by television, radio, phone/TTY, computer, cell phone, text messaging, pager, and other means).”

As an emergency service provider, we’ve been working hard to make our Hyper-Reach notification system as accessible as possible:

  • We use as many notification channels as possible to send out a message: text, phone calls, social media, IPAWS, browser push notifications, and Alexa.
  • Our telephone calling capability fully supports TTY/TDD messaging.
  • Alexa is especially helpful for people with vision and mobility problems, because of its touch-free audio interface. One commentator called Alexa “the most successful product on the planet” for accessibility for the blind and others have noted how valuable it is for folks with physical disabilities. 
  • Our IPAWS interface gives you access to the Emergency Alert System for broadcast channels, such as TV and radio. 
  • And with Google Translate we let you send your message in almost any language that people use. 
  • Our new interface with Nextdoor adds even more, by making it easy to deliver messages that can then be spread from neighbor to neighbor. 
  • We also make it as easy as possible to enroll in emergency alerts.  For example, we give you a call-in number that lets people without computers or computer skills enroll with just a phone call. 
  • And Hyper-Reach has an automated hotline, which lets you record a message with information you want the public to know. People call in to hear your message, which can be easily updated as the situation changes. Your residents don’t need a computer or even be able to read to access the service. So it’s perfect for the elderly, those with vision impairment, and the illiterate. You can even record the message in multiple languages. 

We’re focused on making Hyper-Reach the best system for reaching the most people – with and without disabilities, access or functional needs. And we’re always looking for new ways to help.  So if you’ve got a suggestion, drop us a note at jveilleux@ashergroup.com.  Or for a demo, click here. 

And if you want to do even more, consider Deaf Link, whose Accessible Hazard Alert System can deliver messages as videos in American Sign Language.