Public Communication of Warnings

Edward M. Gross
11612 West Hill Drive, Rockville, Maryland 20852, USA.
Tel. : +1-301-984-4094, Fax: +1-301-984-4261,
E-mail: egross@erols.com

The focus of this plenary session is on the importance of assuring the public that the warnings issued by governmental entities such as National Meteorological and Hydrological Services of the member states of the World Meteorological Organization along with those entities responsible for the issuance of geophysical hazard warnings and others, reach the citizens they serve in an efficient and timely manner. This requires a strong partnership between the media and other mass information distribution systems and those governmental institutions responsible for protecting the lives and property of the citizens of the world.
Dissemination methods must provide critical information to emergency management officials and the general public in a timely manner to ensure that appropriate action can be taken to minimise loss of life and property. In order to avoid confusion and elicit proper response, the national Meteorological and Hydrological Services and those organisations responsible for the issuance of geophysical related warnings, public safety officials and the media must work co-operatively to ensure that a clear and consistent message is provided to the public. An important focus of the discussions will be on the need to insure that there is only "one single official voice" in the issuance of warnings, and that must be the government. This requires not only effective communications and dissemination systems but also an extensive and ongoing public education programme. Key issues are:

1. Role of the government
National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS’s), those organisations and agencies involved in the warning process, and their governments have no greater responsibility than ensuring the safety of their Nation’s citizens from the ravages of natural hazards. Weather warnings and forecasts along with related hydrological and climatological products and services, geophysical warning and related information can contribute significantly to public safety and security and be of enormous socio-economic benefit if properly understood and acted upon. This presentation will focus on the role of the Government in the process of publicly communicating warnings, both meteorological and hydrological as well as geophysical

2. The role of the media
The International Association of Broadcast Meteorology is an organisation set up with the aim of improving the status of weather broadcasting, and of establishing and promoting appropriate standards and best possible practice in the profession world-wide. Many of the world-wide members, even though focusing primarily on weather presentations, also are involved in the communication of geophysical warnings and related information as well. The involvement of television and radio networks in the international dissemination of weather and other hazard related information has added a new dimension to the issues involving the role of the media in the warning process.
Co-operative efforts with local or national media outlets can greatly expand the capability of a National Meteorological and Hydrological Service or of other agencies and organisations with a warning responsibility to reach the public-at-large with its forecasts, warnings and other bulletins. Co-operative arrangements can also facilitate the direct provision of weather information via live or taped radio or television broadcasts. They enable the responsible governmental organisations to carry out its responsibility to warn and inform the public more effectively while, at the same time, providing media outlets with highly desirable programme content. During emergencies and major events such as floods, hurricanes or tropical cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. experts both from the media, NMHS’s and other responsible organisations interact with the public through live broadcasts. These presentations are an extremely effective way to capture public attention and relay critical information and advice.

3. Emerging opportunities
This presentation will provide some insight on both the needs and the difficulties of communicating warnings to dispersed populations, many of whom are working at basic levels of subsistence economies. It focuses on the difficult job to be done, and the crucial relevance and interest of doing it to the state – in its own terms of effective resource application and "protection" of developmental accomplishments. The subject of effective warnings also relates to a number of elements important for developing national capacities – public information and education, environmental understanding and conservation measures, professional training (e.g. engineering, communications, teaching, public administration), emergency services, hydrology, meteorology, food production, agriculture, etc.

4. Warning special populations
Some segments of a population require special warnings simply by virtue of their unique character. Special populations can be defined in many ways, and they vary according to their level of risk, their particular characteristics or the amount of time they need to respond. These population segments include those in special facilities such as schools, prisons, old-age homes, hospitals and other institutions The warnings required by such institutions are probably not different from the sort provided to the general public. However, it is likely that such facilities would require more time for warning response than would be required by members of the general public. Consequently, it would be useful if means were provided to specially communicate warnings to such facilities, as, for example, over tone-alert radios or dedicated phone lines. Special populations with unique warning needs can also exist in non-institutionalised settings. For example, the elderly may occupy a particular geographical region of town. Since older people require a larger effort to convince them to engage in protective actions such as evacuation, special warnings should be provided for their neighbourhood, for example, route notification or through the frequent repetition of media warnings. Additionally, people who are hearing or sight impaired may require special alert and notification devices to be delivered effective warnings; and people who have mobility disabilities or who do not read or understand English have special warning needs.

5. Electronic technology
The emerging development of the so-called information highway provides a new and potentially revolutionary option for the rapid, automatic, and global dissemination of emergency information. A number of individuals and groups, including several NMHS’s and other organisations, are experimenting with the Internet for real-time dissemination of its information, including warnings. It is already possible for subscribers to the Internet to access a wide array of environmental information and products on the network. Clearly, the advent of the Internet provides both opportunity and challenge in determining how best to harness its potential for dissemination of warnings and for the relay of other data and products while minimising the problems associated with a new and open communications technology. With the advent of the Intranet for more secure internal distribution and plans underway in the development of the next generation on the Internet, the future use of electronic technology will play an even more important role in the future communication of warnings and other information to the public. This presentation will also demonstrate these capabilities to the audience.

6. The ITU vision for the future
The ITU will spell out its role in improving, on a global scale, the accessibility to effective and affordable communication techniques tailored to the specific requirements in disaster early warning and response. The presentation will focus on the current status and plans for the future. It will include the role ITU is playing to bridge the communication gap existing between industrialised and developing nations, between techniques, well tuned to serve a few language groups in densely populated and industrialised areas on the one hand and decentralised inexpensive and easy to handle techniques to serve multi-language groups in rural/remote areas. This involves techniques best-suited for disaster warning and response activities in the field, especially in case of a not well developed communication infrastructure or their breakdown after strong disaster events. The compatibility and importance of the concerted international effort reflected in the International Convention will also be discussed.