U.S. Weather Alert Systems Must Modernize, Say New Reports

To reduce risks, including loss of life, national weather alert systems must incorporate social and behavioral sciences and new technology, according to two federally sponsored reports.

Photo credit: Jackie under Creative Commons

Weather forecasting and hazard prediction capabilities have improved significantly in the past decade, but the United States’ emergency alert and warning systems have not kept pace with advancements, according to two new reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The reports were released on 1 November.

Research improving the accuracy of weather forecasts and hazard prediction must continue, the reports state. However, to make the best use of forecasts, the nation’s alert capabilities “will need to evolve and progress as the capabilities of smart phones and other mobile broadband devices improve and newer technologies become available,” according to an official summary of one of the reports. The summary adds that “this evolution will need to be informed by both technical research and social and behavioral science research.”

Expand the System to New Technologies

One report, titled “Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions,” identifies knowledge and coverage gaps in the current alert systems, outlines the potential challenges in building and implementing a new system, and sets a research agenda to improve the nation’s alert and warning capabilities by integrating new science and technology.

For example, the current Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, a part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), leverages the ubiquity of cell phones in modern life. But the system can fail when cellular use is congested or unavailable, and it does not use the diverse communication capabilities of smartphones, says the report. It states that social media and private companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, have begun to incorporate hazard warnings and alerts into their platforms, which likely reach more individuals than WEA.

NASEM’s Committee on the Future of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Research Directions, which wrote the report, suggests that “IPAWS could be augmented so that it draws on a wide variety of data sources, enhances public understanding of emergencies and public response, and uses a wider range of potential technologies and devices for delivering messages.” The committee adds that “alerts and warnings that reach people through tools and communication devices they are using and present information in a way they are accustomed to will be the most effective.”

Social and Behavioral Sciences Should Guide System Updates

The report on emergency alerts and warning systems proposes an interdisciplinary research agenda to incorporate research in social and behavioral sciences that could improve the systems’ effectiveness at delivering weather warnings. A separate report, titled “Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise,” expands on that agenda.

The report shows how people’s knowledge, experiences, perceptions, and attitudes toward severe weather forecasts shape how they respond to potential hazards. The report also highlights the need to integrate expertise in social and behavioral sciences to reduce property damage, injury, and loss of life.

To illustrate this need, the report explains that nearly 6,000 people are killed and more than 445,000 people are injured each year in weather-related vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways, despite forecasts, reports, and alerts of hazardous driving conditions. In addition, the report notes that severe weather events with widespread warnings can still result in large-scale loss of life and property damage, as was the case with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria earlier this year. By knowing how people respond to warnings and why, a more well informed system could promote better public safety.

NASEM’s Committee on Advancing Social and Behavioral Science Research and Application Within the Weather Enterprise wrote this second report. In it, the committee explains that “an individual’s response to a severe weather event may depend on their understanding of the forecast, prior experience with severe weather, concerns about their other family members or property, their capacity to take the recommended protective actions, and numerous other factors.”

The report adds that research in social and behavioral sciences “offers great potential not just for improving communications of hazardous weather warnings but also for improving preparedness and mitigation for weather risks, for hazard monitoring, assessment, and forecasting processes, for emergency management and response, and for long-term recovery efforts.”

Challenges Ahead

Both reports acknowledged that their proposed modernization efforts may face significant challenges. They explain that an ever-changing technological landscape and slow adoption of new technologies mean that an updated system would need to be compatible with new and old technologies simultaneously. The summary of the alert system report also recognizes that “a system that instructs large populations to take a particular action may represent a significant target for spoofing or attacks on service availability” and that security and privacy issues would be paramount.

Nonetheless, the two reports agree that integrating new technologies into the current weather emergency alert system, guided by expertise in social and behavioral sciences, can improve disaster preparedness and mitigation. Together, the reports show that updating alert systems can enhance emergency management and response actions and ultimately save homes, lives, and communities from preventable losses.

Written by Kimberly M. S. Cartier, originally published in Earth & Space Science News (EOS) here, and re-published under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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