Saturday, June 6, 2009

Flood warning and communication

This friday I was able to sit in on a training class for the Bureau of Meteorology's new flood forecasters. Earlier in the week they talked about the nuts and bolts of product generation and running models. This day however was on communication and working with users and so on. Senior managers also talked about what makes a good forecaster and what they can expect on the job. I find the psychology and sociology of forecasting and disasters fascinating. Everything from little tidbits (e.g. during power outages ATMs don't work so people can't get cash to buy food/water from stores) to the broader more philosophical aspects.

One of the talks was on the myths about flood warning. So, myth: people want information from one source. Emergency managers want an authoritative source for themselves, but the public wants to confirm their beliefs from multiple sources (even if it's the same info). You hear it on the news, you get an email from work, you talk to a neighbor, all to triangulate the truth. But if you hear "A" from one source, and "Not A" from another, your chance of doing nothing goes way up.

Myth: people respond to the first warning. It usually takes people about 3 hours to get their act together and get moving, and further reinforcement can build their momentum but they're likely to spend a good amount of time trying to confirm what's going on.

Myth: people will follow recommendations in warnings. People will follow warnings if the basis for the warning is given and the basis makes common sense. The obvious one here is to never drive through water. Doesn't matter if you have 4 wheel drive or it looks shallow to you. You'll never know how deep it is (even if you've driven there before, you don't know how eroded it is on the bottom). And it doesn't help when the media goes out and films cars driving through water anytime there's a flood, or people on the pier anytime there's big waves. Like this:

forget you ever saw that.

Myth: warnings cause panic. Actual panic only occurs in closed physical spaces when there's an immediate and clear source of death and an escape is available but inaccessible. Indeed, many peoples reaction to hazards is to freeze up, gawk at the disaster. Another example of an inappropriate knee jerk reaction that stuck in my mind is that when boiling water gets on a child, the first instinct of the parent is to rub the area to relieve the pain...while tearing away the skin. Yikes.

There's lot of other things they discussed, like door knocking during floods. Always explain who you are and leave them with a piece of paper with the relevant instructions (so they don't need to guess later what you said). Be positive in warnings ("Say in your home" rather than "Don't leave your home"), invite sociability (e.g. advise your neighbors, see if they need help) and so on.

The panel on what makes a good forecaster was interesting too. Multi-tasking ability, time management, intuition, team playerness are some of the obvious ones. Knowing when to ask for help or say you don't know are important also. Know yourself and recognize when you're tired and not making good decisions (there was mention of people having worked 36 hour shifts in the real heat of battle... my work was never that critical and I usually found I was useless after about 14).

I think the reward partly comes in comradeship and reaching that point when you can say "alright, this is it, the big one we've been preparing for" and have at it. Not to romanticize it too much but I imagine it's like when one marine meets another and says "semper fi"; it's only two words but volumes are implied.

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