A post by Jim Garrow on his The Face of the Matter blog got me thinking about a simple lesson that all public safety personnel could learn from the National Weather Service and getting our heads out of our collective silos. Jim speaks about his severe disdain for the term “Shelter-in-Place”, a term likely foreign to 99% of the population prior to its use during the Boston manhunt. Jim makes some very valid points in his post that I will not rehash here as his post is really worth the time to read.
What I do want to hit on here is how the use of plain and honest language should be considered when communicating with the public but most importantly when communicating warning information. A significant deal of research has been applied to the area of warning language by the National Weather Service over the years. For anyone that isn’t familiar with this, you will find that in the last several years warning products have started to use terms like deadly and history of destruction. As the public became complacent about things like tornado warnings, it was critical for the NWS to provide some context to these warnings to differentiate a tornado on the ground that has just leveled towns from a vague tornado signature detected only on radar. As evident from the public response to local storms this is working.
Let’s take this one step further however and go just a bit beyond basic warning messages. People always use historical context when considering how they will respond to basic warnings messages. For example, I live and work in a community that is no stranger to riverine flooding. The community is hard and salty in this regard and very unlikely to evacuate in mass due to a familiarity with the threat. When the big storm comes it is important to provide perspective to them regarding flood depth of historic storms compared to the forecast as well as exactly what they should expect thus allowing them to make an informed decision. Mind you that I do not advocate sensationalism in any form but rather honesty. A great example of this is in the form of language used by one of my favorite NWS personnel during Sandy in his now somewhat infamous personal plea:
What is important here is to realize that Gary provides some degree of historical context, he appeals to emotion as well as logic and above all else he is honest. Think about this the next time that you must craft a warning or recommend a protective action. Do you want to throw out a term that few understand or do you want to show yourself as a person, be honest and potentially save far more lives.