Public Release: 

Improving public safety in face of extreme weather and disasters

Public safety during severe weather and other disasters could be improved with better alert systems and improved understanding of social and behavioral factors

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

WASHINGTON - 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.

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Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A public webinar featuring the chair of the committee will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. For more information or to register for the webinar, please click here: http://alerts.eventbrite.com

Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise was sponsored by NOAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation. A public discussion featuring members of the committee will be held from 1-2:30 p.m. ET on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 at the National Academy of Sciences building. For more information or to register for the event in-person or remotely, please click here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/board-on-atmospheric-sciences-and-climate-fall-2017-meeting-tickets-39096052345

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A roster follows.

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Copies of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions and Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise are available at http://www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE

Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

Computer Science and Telecommunications Board

Committee on the Future of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems Research

Ramesh Rao (chair)
Director
UCSD Division
California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology
University of California
San Diego

James Caverlee
Associate Professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering
Texas A&M University
College Station

Roop K. Dave
Head, Government Initiatives
Information Technology Research Academy
Media Lab Asia
Ottawa, Ill.

Eve Gruntfest
Professional Research Associate
Resilient Communities Institute
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo

Brooke Liu
Director
Risk Communication & Resilience Research Program
School of Communications
University of Maryland
College Park

Leslie Luke
Deputy Director
Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management
Los Angeles

Dennis S. Mileti
Professor Emeritus
University of Colorado
Boulder

Nambirajan Seshadri*
Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer (retired)
Broadband and Connectivity Business
Broadcom Corp.
Irvine, Calif.

Douglas Sicker
Professor and Head
Department of Engineering and Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh

Kate Starbird
Assistant Professor
Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering
University of Washington
Seattle

Charles L. Werner
Senior Advisor to the Commonwealth of Virginia
ParadeRest and the Commonwealth of Virginia
Charlottesville

STAFF

Jon Eisenberg
Board Director

* Member, National Academy of Engineering

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE

Division on Earth and Life Studies

>Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate

Committee on Advancing Social and Behavioral Science Research and Application Within the Weather Enterprise

Ann Bostrom (co-chair)
Weyerhaeuser Endowed Professor of Environmental Policy
Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance
of Washington
Seattle

William H. Hooke (co-chair)
Associate Executive Director
American Meteorological Society
Washington, D.C.

Raymond J. Ban
Managing Director
Ban and Associates LLC
Marietta, Ga.

Ellen J. Bass
Professor
Department of Health Systems and Sciences Research
College of Nursing and Health Professions, and
Professor and Chair
Department of Information Science
College of Computing and Informatics
Drexel University vPhiladelphia

David V. Budescu
Anne Anastasi Professor of Psychometrics and Quantitative Psychology
Department of Psychology
Fordham University
New York City

Julie L. Demuth
Project Scientist
Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Lab
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

Michael D. Eilts
President and CEO
Weather Decision Technologies Inc.
Norman, Okla.

Charles F. Manski*
Board of Trustees Professor in Economics
Department of Economics
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

Richard J. Nelson
Independent Contractor, and
Snow and Ice Pooled Fund Cooperative Program (SICOP) Coordinator
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
Minden, Nev.

Yvette Richardson
Professor
Meteorology Department, and
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education
College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
Pennsylvania State University
University Park

Jacqueline Snelling
Senior Policy Advisor to the Director
Individual and Community Preparedness Division
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Washington, D.C.

John Toohey-Morales
Chief Meteorologist
WTVJ NBC-6, and
Founder
ClimaData
Miami

Joseph E. Trainor
Associate Professor
School of Public Policy and Administration, and
Core Faculty Member
Disaster Research Center
University of Delaware
Newark

STAFF

Laurie Geller
Staff Officer

* Member, National Academy of Sciences

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