PrepTalks: Dr. Dennis Mileti “Modernizing Public Warning Messaging Q&A”


No what we learned in that event based on
what I was able to gather from TV news, which is not a good source of
scientific information. On the other hand, I did observe that they
probably need a little more training in their emergency management organization in Hawaii,
and it’s not that the person who pushed the button is a bad person, right? They just weren’t practiced enough in it. That’s what I would conclude based on what
I saw. Well, I can tell you this I wouldn’t do it
now off the top of my head. I’d want to sit down and ponder it and think
about it carefully. However I can tell you this. If the next warning occurred within the next
two or three years, I would mention the one that was a false alarm, and I’d explained
to them this isn’t that, because that’s going to come up. And it’s an obstacle for people, so let’s
get it out of the way. And I probably wouldn’t hit the streets with
the wireless emergency alert message unless it were also backed up by multiple warnings
over multiple dissemination channels, and the TV news stations interrupted coverage. And we’re talking to the public so I design
warning delivery a little differently in Hawaii. And you know we should have counseled Hawaii
to consider doing that anyway just based on all the public chit-chat about all these nuclear
bombs that could be flying back and forth and Hawaii’s history with getting attacked
in World War Two so on and so forth. So I think a little more broadly than just
the message that went out — the official message. Well first I’d tell emergency managers to
put everything out of their mind and all the myths that they may have succumbed to like
the public panics if you issue a warning or emergency responders will turn yellow belly
and not show up for work. These things aren’t true. The cry wolf syndrome is also a myth. Now if you issued multiple false alarms for
the same population, let’s say, Hawaii every other week for a month and a half then you’d
have a false alarm problem. But just because somebody went through one
event, they’re probably going to be more vigilant and probably more likely to respond well to
a subsequent event having gone through that false alarm. If the second warning takes that into account. So we can actually take advantage of false
alarms. Of course, have we trained the warning providers
with that knowledge, no? Should we? Yes. Thanks for the question
Interesting because in the Oroville dam, one of the counties issued a mandatory evacuation
order and then the biggest city in the county which represents about 75% of the population
of the county issued a voluntary evacuation. Which was a bit confusing for the people who
heard them both. I don’t recommend that people distinguish
between mandatory or voluntary evacuation. I know law enforcement and emergency managers
enjoy those distinctions, but it’s really splitting hairs. Are you recommending that the public evacuate
or not, and if you’re not recommending that they evacuate, don’t recommend it. And if you are recommending that they evacuate,
recommend it. So I come down on the side of public safety
and that would mean if I were recommending an evacuation I would make it mandatory. Let me just give you an example. I just saw quite off-the-record, but let me
share it with you, and whatever YouTube channels this is going over, the mud flow inundation
map for Santa Barbara. Those emergency managers are facing what I
called the Godzilla monster, and it’s like a PhD exam in emergency management, and you
can see all the mud flow tubes and how all these other non-mudded parts of the community
will turn into islands and people won’t be able to get out for seven to fourteen days,
so they need to evacuate, too. So would I recommend ever issuing a voluntary
evacuation there. No, I’d recommend issuing a mandatory evacuation,
and I’d hit them with every warning dissemination channel I’ve got. I’d call me up and say write the message for
us and it would be non-stop news and the police cruisers would be going up and down the whole
thing. That’s how I’d handle it and then it may be
that nothing happens, and then I get on the tube and say, Wow, were we lucky? I’m so happy we erred on the side of caution. Which by the way is what Sheriff Coney did
in Butte County who recommended immediate evacuation under the Oroville damn. He’s touted as a local hero, and I was in
his office, and I said my goodness, you’re the Scully of Butte County. He said you know the real Scully just lives
over there. He’s got a ranch in Butte County, so that’s
what I would do, but that’s the emergency managers call, and of course, that’s why they
get paid the big bucks for making those decisions. I have a comprehensive list of hazards, again
thanks to DHS and FEMA , of the hazards our nation faces. You wouldn’t believe what some of them are. I’ve even gone so far as to write warning
messages for pending asteroid impacts. We have a global scientific society where
people spend all their time looking for rocks in the sky, and there’s a lot of them Most
of the hazards that could be warned for are unfamiliar to most of the people who would
get them Even in communities that are used to for example
earthquakes or floods, tornadoes, etc. Remember there’s always new people that are
moving town for whom that’s a brand-new unique event now. I think the principles of what constitutes
good warning practice are pretty much trans-hazard? Even terrorists hazards, biological hazards,
technological hazards, natural hazards — how you communicate with people is pretty much
the same and the impact of experience or familiarity. I know it’s a quick place to go to think that
makes warning easier. It doesn’t. It makes it sometimes more challenging because
people, the receiver, is burdened by their last experience and the one they’re facing
may be totally different, and you have to deal with that in the warning process. So I guess I’m not concerned about level of
familiarity; that doesn’t mean I don’t support public education about hazards ahead of time. However, I’m not troubled by being able to
warn people because of that factor. I’d be totally transparent and honest with
the public. That’s what they want. They can deal with the fact that we’re human
beings, and we don’t know everything and so one way of handling that is we can’t predict
how high the wave will be,but the best tsunami experts have counseled us to recommend to
you that you act as if it will be a 30-foot high wave. Better safe than sorry. That’s how I’d recommend handling it.

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