A lot of folks have asked why I haven’t posted many blogs lately. I have a great answer: I haven’t had time because I retired!
I’ve lost count of how many Emergency Managers have retired and are now busier than they were before. Seasoned EM’s are so much in demand; there are so many opportunities to consult and present and teach. It is easy to stay very busy.
When I retired, I went the teaching route. My motivation was (still is) training the next generation of Emergency Managers – the ones that will be taking over. Passing on my knowledge and experience is very, very important to me.
I teach in the Master’s program at CSU Long Beach, educating a lot of mid-career people on the ins-and-outs and intricacies of our profession. Before I retired, when I was hiring new employees, it was important to find someone with a strong background in Emergency Management – both experience and education. Many of the applicants were (or had been) in the military or public service. They knew a lot about response, yet didn’t know how to develop a risk assessment and create a mitigation plan for a small city. They could participate in a press conference, but didn’t who Dennis Mileti was, much less his work on emergency notification.
Now, I see those same kind of people in my courses. I insist they have an understanding of basic emergency management theory, ethics in research with human subjects and some real-world experience to expand their understanding of our field. You know all those folks who wonder what we do when there isn’t a disaster? I want them to understand what being an emergency manager is really all about.
Risk and Crisis Communications is a good example. You might be surprised what some students hadn’t considered: being responsible for communicating with special populations in their jurisdictions; the importance of social media in response and recovery; Peter Sandman’s formula for Risk = Hazard + Outrage and its applicability to risk communication.
When I teach this course, there are two-person team projects assigned to work for real community partners. I ask my colleagues to help by providing real problems for them to work on. Students have:
- Researched outdoor warning systems and produced a summary with statistics for a emergency management agency in Texas.
- Wrote a comprehensive paper examining social media use on a university campus, with recommendations for current emergency plans.
- Described a general social media strategy, with SOP’s, for a State Emergency Management Agency.
- Developed a paper summarizing actions to stand up a global social media response organization, including a recommendation for adopting ICS principles.
- Drafted an Emergency Information Guide for a Ministry in Ontario, Canada.
Before students are allowed to graduate in this program, they have to complete either a thesis or capstone project AND defend it. Since these students are all over the U.S., they come up with some interesting projects. Some that are currently in progress:
- Continuing community resilience after federal mitigation funds run out; working with a couple local jurisdictions
- Mitigating disaster related stress in children through music; working with a national organization.
- Creating community resilience with community gardens; working with an agricultural program at a university.
- Discretionary decision making for Peace Officers during a disaster; thesis.
- Developing a white paper to integrate several special districts to create more a efficient law enforcement agency; working with a county Sheriff’s Department.
Here is my challenge for you: Instead of complaining about the lack of experience in newly graduated emergency managers – do something about it. Find a similar program and offer to tutor/mentor a student so they do have some real world experience.
Or send me an email; I am gathering information for next semester. If you have a project, I might just be able to help.
This blog is not so much about why or how to get a CEM® (Certified Emergency Manager), or even whether you should. This blog is about who actually confers it.
I’m not talking about who sponsors the CEM®: the International Association ofEmergency Managers. I’m talking about the appointed Commission who does the work and decides who is qualified. More specifically – my experience as one of those Commissioners.
First, a short side note about the CEM® itself. The official website blurb says: “IAEM created the CEM® program to raise and maintain professional standards for EM.”
In 1988, there was an Advisory Council, funded by FEMA, and composed of 20 different organizations –FEMA and EMI (of course), but also ASPA, IACP, IAFC, ICMA, NEMA, NFPA. Altogether, a pretty impressive list.
They did what every Advisory Council does – they researched and analyzed and debated – and “determined that the best way to implement standards was to define professional benchmarks and provide practitioners with a certification program to document their qualifications.”
The first CEM®’s were awarded in 1993 to 211 individuals. A few years later, the AEM® was established to accommodate candidates who couldn’t yet meet the stricter CEM® requirements. As of June 2013, there were 1476 CEM®’s and AEM®’s around the world and there is a list of them here.
A lot has been written about whether the CEM® is worth getting – or keeping. An article in Emergency Management Magazine last year Professionals Debate the Need for EM certification captured the conflicting views pretty well: “Some say certification is a needed step toward emergency management becoming a more mature profession. Others say the work required to maintain the certification outweighs any benefits.”
Getting the paperwork together for the initial CEM® application is, indeed, a daunting task. All the experience, training, education, references and contributions have to be documented. The same holds true for recertifying after five years – fewer requirements, but everything still has to be documented. Those who value that recognition as a professional somehow figure out how to get it done.
My CEM® was awarded in 2001, which means I’ve recert-ed twice. Then, after applying for several years, I was appointed to the 2015 class of USA CEM® Commissioners (there are three CEM® Commissions: Global, Oceania-Asia and USA.). Was I excited? Yessss! I want to be part of giving something back to this profession; I want to participate in making Emergency Management more professional!
Did I realize how much time, energy, thoughtful consideration, spirited conversations and difficult decisions it would take? No. No, I did not.
Because – just as it is challenging to get that initial or recert CEM® application done in the first place, it is challenging to be part of the CEM® Commission which reviews and evaluates the applications that are submitted. In some ways, it is like redoing your own applications – over and over again.
The USA CEM® Commission consists of 20 appointed members (and six ex-officio members), who represent different peer-related professions – like local and state government, the military, higher education and other public, private and NGO groups. They are appointed for a three-year term and can reapply once – then they retire. The chair and vice-chair are elected each year from the members.
The Commission meets three times a year. Let me tell you what we do at those meetings:
Each application is reviewed and evaluated –independently – by two Commissioners. They decide – independently – whether the application is complete or lacking in some area. If those Commissioners agree – the decision is finalized. If the Commissioners’ independent evaluations don’t agree – and they can’t work out their disagreement – it goes to a third Commissioner for review. All three collaborate on the final outcome – complete or incomplete. Letters are prepared approving the application or telling the candidate what is needed to complete the requirements. They have 90 days to send in the missing material, at which point, their application is again reviewed – independently – by different Commissioners.
A few months ago, in early June, the Commission spent three days reviewing applications. There were 16 of the 20 appointed Commissioners there (along with four of the ex-officio appointments). We met until after 8 pm two of those nights and after 6 pm the third. We had one business meeting. We looked at 160 applications and approved 116 of them. That works out to each Commissioner reviewing an average of 20-ish applications. Over three days.
Some applications aren’t complete … just maybe because the applicant didn’t think it would be reviewed so carefully - like using a supervisor’s form letter for the professional qualification of “awards or special recognition”. Then there are those applications to review that are delivered in several 2-inch binders. I’m not saying it’s impossible for something to slip through the review; but I will say it is darn near impossible.
What surprised me most are the number of applications that are returned because of the essay: those candidates who don’t follow the directions – which are pretty clear – or they don’t use spellcheck, or are just sloppy in their formatting and grammar. Yes, it is graded like a college-level English paper.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. It is exciting, energizing and I always come home more intent than ever on making sure the courses I teach produce professional emergency managers.
Getting a CEM® or AEM® is not easy, but it isn’t supposed to be, is it? If it were easy, anyone could get it, right?
The CEM® Commission makes sure those folks who are awarded a CEM® or AEM® really deserve it, and that it continues to mean something special. I'm tickled pink to be part of it.
Nothing is more important to an Emergency Manager than reliable communication.
The last time I drove across the Nevada desert, I compulsively checked my smart phone every 10-15 minutes to see if I had a signal. Yet. A few weeks ago, driving from western Washington State to southern Utah, my signal fluttered into and out of river canyons where that Verizon guy (“Can you hear me now?”) has never been.
As a culture, with wide-spread internet availability, we take dependable communication for granted – until it isn’t there. When that happens, when we lose the connectivity we have become accustomed to, it pings our normalcy bias.
This is one reason major disasters can be traumatic and emotionally overwhelming: Losing the ability to communicate with our online worlds – especially family and friends – and the resulting sense of separation can be acutely distressing.
All this happens because the infrastructure necessary to provide transmission access points is easily destroyed or damaged, regardless of how permanent they are intended to be. When the transmission is disrupted, communication ceases.
Historically, platforms developed to strengthen transmission range from paid couriers to fixed orbital satellites. Some only lasted for a few years – like the Pony Express – and some still exist – like bicycle messengers in San Francisco. The Semaphore Line, used in the late 18th to early 19th century, used a chain of stations and a shutter technique to transmit messages over 100 km – and disappeared when replaced by the electric telegraph.
(As an aside, the very last telegram will be sent on July 13, 2013 from the only place in the world that still maintains it– India.)
None of those platforms were really long term or permanent solutions. In fact, much of their vulnerability exists because of attempts to make them permanent. Technology is subversive, however, in that it constantly attempts to overthrow the old and bring on the new. As technology scoots ahead, eventually everything is superseded by something fresher and more efficient. (R.I.P. Nextel. 1993 – 6/30/13, 12:01 am ET)
Where are communication platforms going next? I’m guessing they might look something like the latest development from Google [x] – their “secret” R&D lab – aptly called Project Loon. Because - as Google themselves admit – the idea is kind of crazy.
The concept is a network of solar-powered, high altitude, constantly replaced balloons that create hotspots, allowing web access to places on the globe that haven’t had it – or lose it because of a disaster. Comments on the Google blog equate this idea to Sci-Fi magic – and a few checked to make sure the news wasn’t released on April 1st . But the concept of floating communication devices really isn’t new.
The French military used balloons as reconnaissance platforms in late 18th century. During the American Civil War, both sides used tethered balloons that could carry up to five people aloft. There are weather balloons, of course, and the U.S. Army has been experimenting with the use of balloons to enhance field communications.
And after that? How about space elevators?
In his 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise”, Sci-Fi writer Arthur C. Clarke introduced the idea of space elevators, ribbons that were tethered to the earth and platforms in the upper atmosphere. There is a company now, Space Data Corporation, already deploying tethered repeater platforms for the military.
If you think space elevators are a far-fetched idea, take note that the International Space Elevator Consortium (I am not making this up) will be focusing on the technology in its upcoming conference in August. Although, rumors are Google [x] is already working on it.
There are all kinds of advantages to technology like Project Loon. It could significantly decrease the need for new infrastructure and replace aging infrastructure. It could strengthen communication by creating a paradigm shift in the notion that transmission platforms should be permanent (and therefore more vulnerable). It would bring the internet (with all its pluses and minuses) to parts of the world that don’t have it now. Certainly there are obstacles – airspace access and control, for example, and concerns about unnecessary surveillance.
Google says solving these kind of obstinate issues requires looking at the problem from new angles. “The idea may sound a bit crazy …but there’s solid science behind it,” they say. “(We are) hoping that the launch can start the conversation and begin to spec out how this might work on a larger scale.”
From my perspective, I can see this kind of technology benefiting Emergency Management in multiple arenas. Cheap, easily introduced and installed hot spots during disasters will help people and communities (not just responders) talk to each other. Global access to an internet platform means sharing preparedness messages with new audiences, and creating more knowledgeable and disaster-resistant societies. Distance learning academic programs could generate a new generation of global EM’s. Disaster response and relief groups, like Crisis Commons, Crisis Mappers and Ushahidi, can only get better.
One of the primary safety tasks in sailing is reefing the mainsail – lowering it partway in a heavy wind to make the boat easier to manage. There is a classic sailor’s saying about reefing the mainsail: “if you are asking if it’s time to do it, it’s already past that time”.
I learned this lesson the hard way – on a short sail close to the California coast from Oceanside to Dana Point. The winds were brisk and steady. Fortunately, my husband, who is a much more experienced sailor, noticed the weather was changing and discussed reefing. Then he quoted that aphorism, reefed the sails and when the wind gusted up we were fine. But, this is a mistake lots of experienced sailors make – not denying the wind will come up, but denying it will come up so quickly that they can’t manage it.
This is part of “normalcy bias”; a mental state of denial when facing a disaster or pending danger. Normalcy bias leads people to underestimate and minimize the possibility of a disaster actually happening. Until it does – and then they frantically try to reef their sails in heaving seas.
We see normalcy bias a lot in emergency management. Most recently, some of those folks in Oklahoma City, who finally decided to react to the impending danger (the disastrous tornadoes) and – against the strong requests from state and local officials to shelter-in-place and stay off the roads –spontaneously evacuated and gridlocked the freeways, which put a whole lot of people in danger.
I was reading some of the preliminary reports (lessons learned are still being sorted out), and thought about the blog I wrote earlier this year about evacuation behavior and evacuation zones around nuclear power plants. It was about a report in which the NRC suggested large evacuations during an incident put the closest public at increased risk because of traffic conditions and delays as the public furthest from the risk evacuated – whether they were asked to or not. In Oklahoma City, the public was specifically asked NOT to evacuate, tried anyway, and put a lot of people directly in the tornado’s path.
Normalcy bias in evacuation behavior: denying or overreacting to a pending disaster, then acting inappropriately, thereby putting one’s self and others in danger.
This is frustrating because it is such an intractable problem. We can’t convince the public to be prepared; we can’t convince the public to follow directions when they aren’t prepared.
In an interview with NPR, Rick Smith the warning-coordination meteorologist for the NWS in Norman, OK, talked about warnings, information, and human behavior. Smith allowed as this was a complex issue and tackling it would take a group effort by “people who understand — or attempt to understand — human behavior and messaging and all kinds of things.”
Good news! Some people have already done that! There is a lot of social science research, going back to 1990 (Mileti and Sorenson: Communication of emergency public warnings) and 1992 (Lindell and Perry: Behavioral Foundations of Community Emergency Planning). You can find these and more here.
The issue is no longer about understanding public behavior.
The challenge now is modifying public behavior.
What we need is a good, sticky message that targets normalcy bias. Any ideas out there?
In the realm of emergency management higher education, the annual FEMA Higher Education Conference is the event that brings us all together. Usually held the first week in June at the NETC campus in Emmitsburg, it attracts over 400 people, both academians and practitioners.
This conference – more than anything else – has benefited the process of moving Emergency Management from a vocation to a profession. My friend (and fellow blogger) from the dark side, Lu Canton, described it best:
“… (it) provides an opportunity for academics, researchers and practitioners to come together in a collegial atmosphere to discuss our ideas for higher education curricula for future emergency managers.”
I say it attracts “over 400 people” because I can’t get the exact number for last year. FEMA removed the past 15 years of conference proceedings from the Higher Ed website sometime before they cancelled the Higher Ed Conference for 2013.
Okay, they didn’t exactly cancel it; they moved it online, and shortened it, and now totally control the conversation. The official announcement says:
To maximize the use of technologies and for greater efficiencies, the 2013 Higher Education Symposium will be conducted via a series of 4 targeted, topical, focused discussion areas presented via an on-line, web based platform. … These virtual symposiums will be held in lieu of the Higher Education Conference.
I know. It doesn’t sound all that appealing, does it?
The Higher Ed Project and annual conference have an interesting history. Back in 1994, Kay C. Goss then Associate FEMA Director for National Preparedness, Training and Exercises, and John McKay, the Director of FEMA Training, created the FEMA Higher Education Project. At that time, there were few higher education degree programs, and the idea was for FEMA to solve some of their educational and training challenges by partnering with colleges and universities. The venerable Dr. B. Wayne Blanchard was brought onboard to manager the Project and expand the program – which he did very well, indeed!
In 1997, FEMA began hosting an annual conference to bring all interested parties together. The attendance that first year was about 80. In 2011, it was over 400. That is a 500% increase in participation in 14 years, which is very impressive.
Over the past few weeks, there had been rumors going around that the conference was in jeopardy of being cancelled, that it was one of the programs on the FEMA chopping block because of the sequester. This was really odd because FEMA pays very little to host the Higher Ed Conference. Everyone pays their own travel and for the infamous EMI meal ticket. The first to register get one of the dorm rooms on the campus, and the rest stay off campus. Volunteers help the small Project staff put together the agenda and program. There are even student volunteers to record the conference proceedings!!
We were all hoping the Conference would survive. But it didn’t. At this point, the decision has been made. It is too late to reinstate it.
My concern is the precedent. Does this mean the whole Program is in jeopardy? Will the conference happen next year? What else does FEMA have lined up for the chopping block? The sequester is being implemented as a death from a thousand cuts. Who knows what is next to be cut?
In this case, the decision to cancel the Higher Ed Conference was made by the current Superintendent of FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute, Tony Russell. I blogged about him when he addressed last year’s Conference, very shortly (11 days) after he was appointed to the position. He talked about creating an ‘ocean of predictability’ , balancing the barrier between practitioners and academia, and partnerships that benefit the profession.
I thought about sending Superintendent Russell an email about how disappointing it is that the Conference was cancelled, because the only thing predictable now is how much more difficult it will be to balance those barriers.
I decided to write this blog instead.
There isn’t much left to say about what happened in Boston on Monday. As I write this, the manhunt is over, the lockdown was lifted, and the cities are adjusting to a new normal.
From an Emergency Management perspective, I believe this will turn out to be a case study for an efficient, coordinated and collaborative response to an unexpected event from every responder – especially the public, the medical community, local and federal law enforcement.
I watched closely for the first 5-6 hours; then I just listened occasionally and watched for official updates. This is a personal lesson learned from being too closely captivated by disasters I wasn’t directly involved in. The event will proceed whether I’m glued to my TV or computer screen, or not.
Emergency Managers, like others who deal with emergencies every day, learn how to distance themselves emotionally from the events surrounding a disaster. That’s the only way to keep enough perspective to manage all the details coming into an EOC: communication, mutual aid, personnel, shelters, staging, triage, barricades, evacuation and so on.
As I watched the events in Boston, I realized that is exactly what I was doing. I was critically watching the videos for organization and control, listening to the news and sifting out the rumors, following the official – and unofficial – tweets. I appreciated the coverage on NPR, where Steve Inskeep (Morning Edition) kept reminding us that he was “collecting dots, not connecting dots.”
I’m not suggesting Emergency Managers aren’t emotionally affected by these kinds of disasters; that comes later, when we replay the decisions that were made and think about how our actions effect the safety and security of the people we are responsible for. We translate our experience into preparedness training - for ourselves and the public.
I wrote a couple blogs recently about disaster preparedness messaging. One was about sticky messages and one about using the Zombies Apocalypse as a meme to create teachable moments – when it is possible for a teacher to break through the apathy and get a message across. We want people to prepare for the unexpected, but we struggle with how to get their attention and convince them.
The request for the public to shelter-in-place during the Boston Marathon Bombings is just such a teachable moment.
I would hazard a guess that a whole lot of people didn’t know what shelter-in-place meant before Thursday, and now it will become part the public lexicon. It’s different than a snow day (Boston has that one covered). Shelter-in-place requests are generally limited – in time and scope.
Asking the public to shelter-in-place isn’t an unusual request, either – although it is more often used because of a chemical spill or, more recently, at schools during a shooter scare. It’s a way to keep people safe – and out of the way – until the responders can contain the area or eliminate the threat.
The shelter-in-place request for the Boston region was from civil authorities, complied with willingly, for 12+hours, by over 1 million people, on a beautiful Spring day.
It was the epitome of a large-scale, unexpected, public event – one that could have been longer and more traumatic than it was.
What is the message we should be spreading about the shelter-in-place request in the Boston Metropolitan Region?
“This really happened in Boston. It could easily happen to you …
“… and it’s a good idea to keep some emergency supplies in your home, office and car just in case. Here – let me give you a list to get you started.”
The emotional impact of those videos, tweets and news reports will do the rest.
Teachable moments are rare opportunities. This one is an entirely plausible, yet unexpected, event. It was a situation almost everyone can imagine happening to them. Taking precautions against it are not complicated, unreasonable or especially onerous.
I would like to see everyone be prepared for those catastrophic events we always talk about, to be independent for several weeks, and in a position to help their neighbors.
In the meantime, I would settle for everyone being prepared to spend a day stranded at home, work, on the subway, or in their car.
Because … it’s a start.
Talking about sticky disaster preparedness messages is one thing; debating the best way to instill the message of disaster preparedness is another; cutting through the talk and actually doing something is rare.
We all agree the best way to institutionalize disaster preparedness is to start with the kids. There are lots of attempts, some successful and some not. Teen Cert is a good example of a program that has legs in a lot of communities. But even those are limited. Wouldn’t it be nice to have actual schools for younger students who wanted to begin training as future emergency management professionals?
Here are two examples: one national and one international.
I. In September, New York City will open 78 new schools and one of them will address their long-term response strategy to Hurricane Sandy: a public high school of emergency management. The documents filed at the Department of Education says the freshman class will be 108 students and will collaborate with FEMA, DHS, Red Cross, and others. It will offer students “one of three "majors" meant to lead to a specific career in the field: Emergency Management, Response and Recovery, and Emergency Technology Communications.”
II. The World Disaster Management Community College opened last fall in Kanana, South Africa with 32 students who graduated at the top of their secondary school classes and don’t have the means to attend University. It is part of the “Every Child Is Ours Foundation” and has a major advocate: Kay C. Goss. They have an awesome blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and an email. They are serious, dedicated and taking full advantage of this opportunity.
These are both impressive accomplishments. It's a trend that could catch on …
The blog I posted about Sticky Messages generated lots of great comments about disaster messaging and got me to thinking about a different kind of messaging: memes.
The term meme was coined by a British biologist, Richard Dawkins, using evolutionary theory to explain how ideas exist, change, live and die. He compared the life of a meme to biological evolution; the meme adapting and passing traits (ideas and models) to succeeding generations, which helped it endure – or not – throughout time.
The concept was co-opted in the 90’s by the memetics movement, which immediately split into opposing camps about how to use them and the concept has since mutated into a staple of the internet – thereby proving Dawkins’ theory correct.
Sticky messages vs meme? A sticky message is a building block of a meme: short, not very mutable. A meme is contagious and evolves over time as it passes from one person to the next. (Like the flu.) Sticky messages are picked up and discarded by the meme as it evolves, like pieces of DNA.
A meme can also be sticky – in fact, the stickiness factor is the key to spreading a meme. And what is more sticky and meme-like than zombies? Zombies have evolved from a religious figure in an African religion to a literary creature then into movies, TV series and pop culture and, finally, (maybe) into a symbol for disaster preparedness.
That latest evolution for zombies happened back in October of 2009 at the University of Florida at Gainsville, when Doug Johnson, the assistant director for Learning Services, created a sticky meme. He wrote an exercise plan about a Zombie Apocalypse as part of their H1N1 planning and posted it on the university web site.
I remember how clever I thought the whole idea was, but before I could get a copy, the UF Chief Information Officer had it taken down because of the national media attention. It was reposted 14 days later. If you failed to get a copy then, you can get one now from the UF library.
Its real popularity, and what distinguishes it as a disaster preparedness meme, was a blog posted on May 16, 2011 by the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response for the CDC, Rear Admiral Ali S. Khan, titled Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The resulting traffic crashed the CDC website. The tweet had in excess of 1.2 million followers. Here is a snippet from the blog:
The rise of zombies in pop culture has given credence to the idea that a zombie apocalypse could happen. In such a scenario zombies would take over entire countries, roaming city streets eating anything living that got in their way. The proliferation of this idea has led many people to wonder “How do I prepare for a zombie apocalypse?”
Who is going to argue with the CDC? If they could use zombies in disaster preparedness – so could Kansas and Ohio and Delaware and Maine and … DHS at the Halo Counterterrorism summit in San Diego last October. Brad Barker, president of the security firm, Halo Corp, said: "No doubt when a zombie apocalypse occurs, it's going to be a federal incident, so we're making it happen.”
Earlier this month, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina suggested that the obsession with zombies is (according to the TIME newsfeed) “part of a historical trend that mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval.”
I’m not so sure about that. Take a look at zombieHunters.org. This is a seriously funny prepper website based on the ‘zombie’ theme some Emergency Managers are becoming so fond of, with tons of really great information, forums, events and connections – all things that could be incorporated into your programs.
So start thinking about how to spread the sticky messages we need to incorporate into this Disaster Preparedness meme:
- You’re on your own for at least three days.
- Water, Shelter, Food.
- Mutual aid is as far as you can walk in a day.
- If you can’t carry it, you don’t need it.
- Brains are just not a high energy food. (OK - this last one is for April Fool's Day.)
Why can’t Emergency Managers succeed in getting the message across to the public that they should be prepared for a disaster? We all try very hard, and yet survey after survey shows that people just aren’t internalizing the message.
I have an idea. Perhaps the messages don’t work because NOT understanding the curse of knowledge stops us from using the stickiness factor.
Stay with me here and let me explain:
The stickiness factor came from thoughts on effective messaging that author Malcolm Gladwell described in The Tipping Point. This is how he explains it:
"But the hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. Stickiness means that the message makes an impact. You can’t get it out of your head. …Unless you remember what I tell you, why would you ever change your behavior or buy my product or to go to see my movie?"
Sticky messages have such memorable content and such an impact they are vividly recalled with just a few clues. When you see or hear a sticky message, you just know the story behind it. Proverbs and urban legends are inherently sticky. Advertising aspires to be sticky, entertainment can produce really sticky images. For example:
- The early bird gets the worm.
- Waking up in a tub of ice, with a note on your chest.
- Snap! Crackle! Pop!
- Make it so.
How to make a message sticky is detailed very well in the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. They took Gladwell’s thoughts (admitting it freely) and said sticky messages have six principles in common: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. Great book – make it part of your real or virtual bookshelf, and they did a nice interview on NPR.
The “curse of knowledge” concept came out of a game created by a PhD student (Elizabeth Newton) at Stanford back in the 90’s. You have probably heard of it – the tappers and listeners game.
Very simply, she asked one group to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song and the other group listened and tried to guess what the song was. The tappers predicted how many songs the listeners would be able to guess and they thought about 50%. The success rate was really, really low – like 2.5%. The tappers were surprised the listeners couldn’t guess – it seemed pretty obvious to them! The tappers could hear the song complete with music and rhythm in their heads, but the listener only heard a disconnected set of dots and dashes.
Bottom line: The curse of knowledge makes it almost impossible to create a sticky message.
Emergency managers create emergency preparedness messages to share what we know about disasters with the public. We want those message to be sticky. But our own knowledge has ‘cursed’ us, because it is hard to imagine what it is like to NOT know what we know. If we only create messages that resonate with us, we can’t just assume they are going to resonate with public.
What is it we want to tell the public? Be prepared to withstand a disaster.
What do we tell them? Be informed. Make a Plan. Build a kit.
Not a real ‘sticky’ message, is it?
What do we really want to say? Be prepared to help yourself because we can’t help everyone.
Now that’s a sticky message.
The one plan most emergency managers dread writing is the evacuation plan. This is because regardless of how comprehensive and reasonable it is, or how detailed and rational, - there is a high rate of non-compliance from the public.
It doesn’t even matter what kind of disaster we are planning for.
Case in point: I happen to live with a nuclear power engineer-type who has learned quite a bit about emergency management in the past 10 years. He points out articles in his world that bridge into mine. The most recent was from the Atomic Insights blog titled “Increasing Evacuation Zones actually increase risk in case of reactor accident.”
Emergency response for a nuclear power incident has traditionally included evacuation of the surrounding population beyond a arbitrary radius (general 10 miles). The concept was that the radiation dose would decrease radically from the incident site, and at 10 miles would decrease to an acceptable level. This was all based on an NRC report from 1980.
After 9/11, the NRC initiated a reassessment of the effects of a severe reactor accident, complete with one of those inexplicable acronyms: “The “State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses” (SOARCA) project was completed and released in June 2012.
It is a very detailed and comprehensive and somewhat incomprehensible report (to a layman). The abstract notes that because of previous and ongoing research, “analyses of severe accidents at nuclear power reactors are more detailed, integrated and realistic than at any time in the past.”
Buried down on page 84 of that report, under the subtitle “Sensitivity Analyses on the Size of the Evacuation Zone” is this statement:
Analysis of Figure 15 and 16 also shows that expanding the evacuation size from a 10 mile radius to a 20 mile radius results in increased LCF risk for people in the 0-10 mile area. SOARCA analyses show that an evacuation beyond the area closest to the plant will delay those most at risk, i.e., closest to the plant. The increased risk to the population within 10 miles of the plant is due to slower evacuation speeds because of additional traffic congestion and delays that result from evacuation of a larger population.
Basically, the larger the evacuation zone, the more exposure for those people closest to the event because of the traffic inherent in any evacuation, especially one that is likely to be as fraught with both real and imaginary consequences as an incident at a nuclear power plant.
This isn’t news to emergency managers. Evacuation planning is complicated and made more so by politicians who demand unreasonable planning parameters and a public who don’t pay attention. Emergency Managers also know that regardless of the evacuation limits, disasters come with shadow evacuations – that group of people who are not required to evacuate, but try it anyway, causing even more traffic delay.
You’d think the ‘shadow evacuees’ would be balanced out by the ‘cry wolf’ effect – those people who refuse to evacuate – and then cause their own suite of response problems. But that would be way too easy.
There have been some studies about evacuation behavior, including this one looking at hurricanes in South Carolina.
There weren't many surprises: fewer people are willing to evacuate for a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, and a third are uncertain whether they were located in a storm surge or Flood zone. It also suggested that shadow evacuations could significantly increase the evacuating population and potentially put more people in harms’ way.
The solution to this problem is difficult. It falls somewhere between trying to modify human behavior and modifying emergency plans to account for human behavior. I’m not sure which would be easier.
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