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As bushfires continue to increase in their frequency and severity, the provision of effective warnings has become a critical capability for emergency services.

The wisdom of a crowd: warnings of the future

Our approach to warning communities of an emergency has transformed rapidly over the last decade. A little bit further back, say 15 years ago, we were only just beginning to consider how we might use the internet to share public information about emergencies. Traditional broadcast media channels were our primary modes of public communication and even then, the focus was much less about warnings and much more about how many trucks we had on scene.

Internet ready mobile devices were still a thing of the future, and sharing of images or maps rarely occurred due to the time and effort required to produce these, and the capacity of our dial-up modems to receive them. Google was but a babe, and online mapping services were still many years away. Facebook, Twitter and their many sharing platform peers were still a dream. For many communities, the local fire brigade’s siren was the only real ‘warning system’ and a text message would have arrived on a piece of paper.

Since then, not just technology but our thinking and policy on the responsibility of emergency services to more effectively warn communities has matured significantly.

In 2016 the management and provision of public information, as it is now known, is an essential priority activity across all Australian emergency services. Officially recognised in the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS), many organisations now list warning communities as the first priority of an incident manager.

Public information practice has advanced to understand the importance of targeted and timely messages, delivered across multiple channels, and including specific information and advice to help people take safe action. A range of related research has explored issues such as risk perception, warning fatigue, decision-making and motivation to act. All of this is thoroughly interesting, but let’s look at some of the next frontier ideas.

Traditional channels of communication during an emergency remain important, but we are learning more about how to connect with people using digital and social media channels.

Traditional channels of communication during an emergency remain important, but we are learning more about how to connect with people using digital and social media channels.

Let it go: Embrace the crowd

One of the more challenging aspects of contemporary public information is the growing capability and trend for community members to not only receive warnings, but to share and discuss warnings, or even write their own warnings. Sacré bleu!

Traditionalists panic as this is far from a standard command and control scenario. ‘But they could be wrong! But they’ve left out the important detail we had provided!’ ‘But their warning will fall out of date!’ Yes, yes and yes. Look at the positives though. People are actively engaging in connecting with their community and building disaster resilience, they are taking on a shared responsibility for safety, and they are potentially reaching and influencing people who are not connected to (or listening to) official channels.

In a report released by the Rockefeller Foundation this year on public health communication, Dr. Barbara Reynolds, senior advisor for crisis and risk communication at the (US based) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention summed up an effective warning thus: “The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives. When we don’t have these three things together, people die.”

We are advancing well when it comes to building the right message and issuing timely warnings (although there is always more to be done). It is the ‘from the right person’ element that we need to think more deeply about. Research reveals that an authoritative or official source is not necessarily the ‘right’ person to inspire action. At least not on its own. Professor Douglas Paton of the University of Tasmania has argued for example, that trust in the source of information has greater importance and impact on people deciding to take action, than the content of the warning itself.

Post-incident analysis across a range of hazards has revealed that householders are influenced by how their neighbours are responding. Analysis of social media activity in an emergency highlights that messages shared or authored by individual citizens and media organisations often capture more attention than official emergency services messages. In this context then, a parent, a local community leader, a media personality or a friend may be the ‘right’ person. Frustrating as this may be to some, we need to acknowledge the power of the crowd as a strength and to better capitalise upon this strength.

The 2014 National Review of Warnings and Information included key recommendations on improving the use of social media and providing more spatial and visual content.

The 2014 National Review of Warnings and Information included key recommendations on improving the use of social media and providing more spatial and visual content.

Tapping into influencers

In an emergency we can count on a surge of social media activity. A number of researchers have studied these surges, painstakingly categorising the nature of the activity and tracing the source and use of information as it is shared rapidly across networks. One of the interesting concepts arising from this research is that of ‘influencers’. Influencers feel motivated to get involved in sharing information about an emergency for a range of reasons and can quickly emerge as integral sharing points across an extensive network.

Importantly, they don’t necessarily create original content but tend to repackage and share existing content. What do they share? Why do they repackage? We have more to learn but therein lies the opportunity. How might emergency services create content that is easily and well shared? Figure 1 provides an example of an official warning repackaged (in this case by a media outlet) on their Facebook page. It highlights the transformation of a detailed warning to a short, more informal and more visual message.

Withholding the (spatial) detail

“They must know where the actual fire is. Why don’t they show us a map with more than a ‘pin point’ on it?” (Participant in 2014 National Review of Warnings and Information research by Ipsos)

Yes, they are onto us, and community expectations continue to rise. Sharing of spatial information with the public during emergencies is still rudimentary, and yet there is increasing access to sophisticated spatial information and modelling to inform response strategies. Why don’t we share it? Reasoning ranges from ‘it is too complex’ to ‘the modelling doesn’t provide certainty’.

In 2002 a similar debate raged in Victoria about whether to share incident information with the public. Opponents argued that the information might be incomplete or incorrect, and that it may confuse people. Advocates argued that information, with the right consideration for format and context, would empower communities to make better decisions. The advocates on this occasion, won the debate. Is the argument so different in 2016 when it comes to sharing spatial information?

By 2020, emergency warnings will almost certainly be underpinned by spatial information, mapping and visual cues for communities. The question is whether emergency services champion this work or whether others take the lead in lieu of them.

Figure 1: At left an official severe weather warning is provided. At right, a local radio station has tailored its own weather warning on Facebook, drawing from and linking to the same official sources, but with less detail and a more informal tone.

Figure 1: At left an official severe weather warning is provided. At right, a local radio station has tailored its own weather warning on Facebook, drawing from and linking to the same official sources, but with less detail and a more informal tone.

A two-way street

The 2014 National Review of Warnings and Information acknowledged the challenge that many emergency service organisations face in resourcing social media channels and responding to questions and discussions during an emergency, with some being completely overwhelmed during large events. Indeed, a small number of organisations remain reluctant to use social media for this specific reason. The need to engage in two-way information exchange is real. As the Victorian Country Fire Authority’s Martin Anderson has said, “Using social media as an outbound only channel is the equivalent of phoning someone to tell them an important piece of information and then hanging up as soon as they asked a question”.

The need to innovate and once again, to trust in the crowd, is paramount. The use of trained social media monitors, a network of volunteers or virtual operations support teams (VOST) to assist in living within, filtering and fielding online conversations continues to grow. There are challenges around training, authority, managing mis-information, and trust, but like all that have passed before, they can be overcome. Surely not being part of the conversation presents greater risks.

The next frontier for Public Information and the issue of warnings during emergencies will embrace crowd-sourced and crowd-shared activity. Information will be more visual and easily shared by others, and emergency services will have strong, virtual networks of volunteers and known influencers. As a final note, it is important to say that development of social and digital media channels is by no means the only area for advancement in Public Information management. But it is an important area, and the pace of change and increasing community expectations demand our attention.

For more information, go to www.cubegroup.com.au

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<p>Deb Symons is a Partner with Cube Group. Deb has worked in the emergency management and public safety sector for more than 15 years leading local, state and national initiatives. She has particular interests in multi-agency collaboration and team dynamics, volunteerism, warnings and risk communication, community engagement, and achieving public value outcomes.</p>

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