Monday, November 16, 2009

Warning Messages--Risks of Wimpiness and Wolf Cries

The article on this website about Flood Control messages reminded me of a presentation by a FEMA executive about the public warnings issued just prior to Hurricane Ike in Galveston. We were presenting together at a crisis communication conference for federal agencies in Washington DC and he was discussing how emergency managers involved in preparing for the imminent arrival of Ike were trying to warn the public to evacuate.

Getting people to evacuate from a major storm like this has long been a challenge. So the discussion was how to motivate people. He showed the messages that were put out to the people along the area most likely to be hit hardest, particularly Galveston. The message essentially said: Evacuate or you will die. The discussion was whether or not this kind of straightforward and very dire message was effective.

There is little doubt that the seriousness of the simplicity of the message helped some people make the decision to evacuate. However, 14,000 people in the Houston area chose to ride out the storm and over 2000 had to be rescued. Approximately 120 lives were lost including about 40 in the Galveston area. So, despite the dire warning, many chose to ignore it and indeed lives were lost.

What troubled me about the message was the impact in the future if such a message were deemed as crying wolf. There is no doubt that the evacuation traffic jams from Hurricane Katrina in the Houston area were very much on people's minds and played a major role in making the decision to evacuate or not. That in itself is a tremendously important lesson for emergency managers. Assuming management of the mass evacuation for Ike was much improved what might have been even more effective is a strong communication effort aimed at letting the public know that evacuation would not be a huge pain to them.

While there was probably justification in some sense of accomplishment that the simple and exceptionally strong warning to the public resulted in lives saved, there should be concern with the fact that many chose to ride out this storm and lived to tell about it. What will be the impact next time when the public sees the warning--heed this or you WILL die?

PIOs and Incident Commanders need to carefully think through the messages distributed to the public in these kinds of events. They need to understand what is going on in people's heads, what reasons they have for taking unwarranted risks and why they will or will not heed the warnings. And one thing they must be careful of is not to damage the credibility of the agencies and the power of future warnings by crying wolf.

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