Communication is one of the most complex processes that humans engage in. Messages are conveyed in many forms and the receivers of those messages “hear” or “perceive” this information in a very dynamic process. The weather warning communication process has been analyzed to determine how end users receive and act upon weather information, which has revealed where communication problems have occurred. It’s important to understand what the public understands or perceives and how they might take the wrong actions or inactions based on those understandings. When we understand these misperceptions, we can use that information to improve the weather warning process.
Confusion on Terms
Many of the weather warning terms have been used for a long time, with the assumption that the public understands their meanings. Some terms, such as “warning” hold more consistent meaning for people than do terms such as “watch.” The public generally perceives the “warning” as a serious message, but this is tempered by their perceptions of false alarms, the need for secondary confirmation, determining if “it” will really impact “me”, and other psychological and personality issues that can affect the gravity of the message.
Vulnerable populations may be unaware that the “watch” is designed to specifically give them more lead time to take action. Even when vulnerable populations are aware of the watch, they may not perceive it as useful. For example, the tornado watch gives mobile home residents time to get to a stronger shelter, but since watches don’t always turn into actual warnings and/or tornadoes, such residents often don’t value the information or heed the message. They actually would prefer a watch message that conveys the seriousness and potential of the message so they can gauge when they really should take action in a watch.
When we add “advisory” to the winter weather warning and watch messaging, we’ve learned the hard way that the public and weather enterprise partners may perceive the advisory as a downgrade instead of an upgrade in the warning process. In a 2014 winter weather event in Atlanta, an advisory was issued and the general perception was that it was a downgrade. People thought it was less of a threat when it was actually more of a threat. As a result, assets and resources were not positioned properly and schools and businesses were not closed. The event turned into a huge transportation nightmare.
There are also new terms being used that the public and the weather enterprise are not as familiar with so their lack of knowledge or limited knowledge may be impacting the usefulness of the message. The terms “particularly dangerous situation” (PDS) and “emergency,” such as tornado emergency or flash flood emergency are used to indicate an even more serious situation than just the traditional and more familiar warning is intended to do. While these terms do get lots of attention, what do they actually mean to the public and to the enterprise? Broadcast meteorologists are helping translate the meaning to their audiences by explaining the impacts of these situations. For example, a flash flood emergency impact is typically multiple high water rescues. When the public and the enterprise hear this, they are more likely to shelter in place because they understand that this is not their typical perception of flooding that they may “think” they can handle.
So let’s talk about the public’s perception that they can drive through flood waters. Over and over again, we see examples of people who get stranded or washed away in flooded areas. We ask “why” do these people continue to attempt to drive in flood waters? Are they not getting the message? Is something wrong with the message? There are two issues at play here. One issue is that people generally feel like they have to get where they are going and they can handle it. The second issue is that people generally don’t understand the power of water. They don’t understand water depth or the power of water over vehicle weight.
Overcoming this misperception problem means getting people to understand that they don’t have to drive through it. Wait it out! Take an alternate route! But we have to convey that message very seriously. Broadcast meteorologists and the National Weather Service have to provide those calls to action and also provide situational awareness and secondary confirmation that the waters are this dangerous. Using slogans such as “turn around, don’t drown” are simple reminder messages that serve to capture the public’s attention.
There are also just some general misunderstandings about weather and weather information that cause people to make bad decisions. We assume that everyone understands weather and weather impacts, as well as their own vulnerabilities, but we need to question this assumption. Why would people develop this understanding unless they feel like they have to? How do they know they should? Let’s look at some of these misperceptions.
Unless people have experienced a land falling hurricane, they might not know that storm surge is the bigger danger and not so much from wind. Does the weather enterprise do a good job of educating the public about surge impacts or do they focus on wind to the detriment of surge? If the public perceives it’s all about wind, they may think they have to evacuate for wind instead of surge, which may not be necessary at all. Also, people will not realize their vulnerability to surge and may think they are safe sheltering in place.
This brings us to the issue of location and proximity. The public may not know how to identify their location in relation to the warning and impact areas. Amazingly, some people do not know what county they live in. Does your 16 year- old child know what county he lives in? If people are visiting, they are even less likely to know what county they are in or where they are within a county. Does the visitor from Germany coming to do business with your company know what county she is in? If we are looking at weather graphics, do we know our current location within that graphic? Broadcast meteorologists can educate their audiences about county boundaries, landmarks, and vulnerable locations through social media and during on-air broadcasting.
Lack of experience with weather can lead to numerous misperceptions. If you have never experienced a hurricane or a tornado, do you know how to prepare? Do you know how to interpret the weather information if you’ve never been exposed to it before? It has been over 10 years since Florida has experienced a land falling hurricane. There are many people living in Florida today who don’t remember the last hurricane, who didn’t live there when the last hurricane occurred, or have never experienced hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods. And we assume they know what to do when we provide the weather warning information? They will be bringing their perceptions of what they can imagine, what they’ve heard from others, what they remember from reports of other extreme weather events, as well as their own psychological processes for weather response. Some people will panic out of fear, others will try to learn about it on the fly, and yet others will just ignore it and hope for the best. Risk communication to the public before weather seasons begin can help educate people about the warning process and preparing for it. As we speak, the National Hurricane Center is engaging in a series of educational events in multiple cities to capture the public’s attention about the upcoming hurricane season. Crisis communication at the time of the event will help convey immediate information to those who have never experienced these events.
So let’s talk about the fear factor and how it leads to misperceptions. A recent extreme weather event can cause people to panic in the next event as they recall the impacts of the recent event. People who are weather aware and those who are not are vulnerable to this fear factor. A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, another category 5 hurricane, Rita, was headed for the Houston, Texas Gulf Coast region. The public and decision makers panicked as a consequence of the Katrina impacts, fearful of what might happen to Houston. People did not know what to do, people evacuated who did not have to, there were no evacuation plans and the transportation system bogged down, people hoarded food and gas that created shortages lasting for weeks, and in the end, the storm diverted to the east and the Houston area was left in shambles from the panicked response. Had the weather enterprise anticipated the fear factor from Katrina, they could have educated the Houston region about how to prepare and how to respond to the weather warning process in a calmer way.
Another misperception is that everybody is receiving the warning messages in a way they can understand it. It is assumed that messages are going out through modalities that everyone can receive. This is not true. Many people do not have weather warning resources or know how to obtain them. It is also assumed that the messages are going out in a language that people understand. The messages may only be in English, meaning that those who do not speak English may not understand it at all or if it is translated, it may not be translated with the same meaning. Non-English speakers will be expecting to get the warning information in a way they can understand and if they don’t, it may lead to taking the wrong action and extreme frustration.
What we call a weather event has a lot to do with people’s perceptions. Meteorological terms such as hurricane, category 5, EF4, have a lot to do with the human mind’s perception of strength and severity. Even naming events like tropical storms, hurricanes, and winter weather connote a certain degree of seriousness and actually help trigger decision-making processes by officials. So what if the name does not live up to the severity or the severity of an unnamed event takes people by surprise? It can all be a matter of what we call it and how we describe it that triggers people’s responses and emotions. So we have to be very careful with the criteria for naming an event and we have to make sure the naming or not naming of the event corresponds to the seriousness by valid criteria.
We also think that we convey messages well graphically but again, people perceive these graphics differently and graphics can lead to confusion, inconsistency, and vast misinterpretations. Differences in severity and seriousness scales and colors can lead to confusion in interpreting graphics from different sources. The way we construct the graphs can make interpretation simple or difficult. If graphics are too wordy, too complicated, inconsistent, or provide too much information, the public may misunderstand the intent of the graphic.
Take a look at the weather graphic below. This graphic includes potential impacts, simple to understand threat levels, location and proximity, timing, and the most likely threats. Creating such a graphic is no simple task to make sure the right message is being conveyed and the message is being interpreted properly.
And that leads us to the issue of conveying uncertainty and confidence with the weather warning process. It is assumed that the public does not like uncertainty so we try very hard to reduce uncertainty, increase confidence, and explain the gaps. In fact, the public understands the uncertainty of weather information and prefers to know the range of possibilities and the potential impacts of those possibilities. The public and decisions makers want to know the worst case, the best case, and the most probable case so they can plan accordingly. Some people need to plan for the worst case even if it does not happen. Some people can afford to plan for the best case if they know the most probable case.
Understanding the audience for the weather warning process is key. It cannot be assumed that everyone will understand because there is no reason to believe they would understand. Like the medical belief model, we have to get people to believe weather can impact them just like disease can impact them. The medical profession spends endless efforts trying to get the public to believe that disease can happen to them and only a portion actually believe it with enough time to prevent or mitigate it. Think about all the misperceptions that people have about health issues. The same is true about the weather belief model and we’ve not spent nearly as many resources on educating the public about their weather health. So we have to understand what they do believe and why they believe it to guide our efforts. That’s the only way we can change their behavior as well as the behavior of the weather enterprise.