Communicating in the face of disasters

Last Saturday’s ‘Background Briefing’ on ABC Radio National was about disasters – how to plan for them, how to manage them, and how to communicate about them. The conversation about the benefits (or otherwise) of centralised control during disasters and about the benefits (or otherwise) of spreading insurance risk was fascinating. But what really caught my attention was the conversation about disaster communication.

From the perspective of clear communication, three comments stood out for me:

  1. The way that we communicate the risk of a disaster gives false hope that a disaster is unlikely to happen
  2. Disaster warnings are so full of technical jargon that many people find them meaningless
  3. Calls for better community education about disaster have been ignored.

The way we communicate disaster risk

In Queensland we’ve become very familiar with the idea of the ‘1-in-100-year disaster’. We now talk confidently about the 1-in-100-year flood, or the 1-in-100-year cyclone.

But there’s a trap here. If the 1-in-100-year flood happened this year, then we’re safe for a while, right? It won’t happen again for a long time … maybe not even in our lifetimes.

This is what’s known as the gambler’s fallacy, and it gives us false hopes.

There’s a widely-held misconception that a 1-in-100-year event will only happen once every 100 years (give or take a bit). But, of course, the 1-in-100-year concept really means that there is a 1% chance of a particular event occurring in any year. Whether or not the event happens in any one year does not influence the risk of it happening the following year. The river doesn’t know that it has just flooded and shouldn’t do so again for a while! There’s always a 1% chance of flood (and apparently even the 1% is disputed and could actually be much higher). The risk doesn’t change based on previous events.

Maybe it’s time to re-think the way that we communicate disaster risk. Improving maths literacy would go a long way towards solving this problem. In the meantime, maybe we need to talk about the extent of disaster that we plan for (such as river height or cyclone severity), rather than the frequency with which the disaster is likely to occur.

Disaster warnings full of technical jargon

I learned on Background Briefing that the broadcast media are required to read out disaster warnings exactly as they are issued. The warnings may be accurate, but are they readily understandable for most  people? Is it possible that, as Background Briefing suggested, the technical words of the disaster warning only further complicate an already complicated situation?

I remember thinking that Queensland’s disaster warning system was impressive. But that was easy for me to think … my house wasn’t in the path of the flood or the cyclone. I didn’t need to worry about whether a 17m flood would reach my driveway or my roof. It seems that many people were confused about the extent of the danger they faced.

The effectiveness of disaster warnings needs to be understood in context, and the best way to achieve this is to test them out with people. In Queensland, we have a real opportunity to test disaster warning scripts with people who remember experiencing them. Good qualitative research, conducted with people who directly experienced the disasters and with people who watched from the sidelines this time, could lead to enormous improvements in the way that disaster warnings are worded.

Calls for better community education

Background Briefing pointed out that every major disaster in Australia is followed by an enquiry and a report. And the report invariably calls for better community education about disaster preparedness. The interviewee on Background Briefing said that this call for community education is never followed through – that people don’t learn more about how to respond to a disaster, and the collective public memory from each event is lost.

I’m aware of a few community education campaigns about disaster planning – for example, there’s an ongoing tsunami awareness campaign in northern Australia, and there was a recent push for household disaster preparedness. Every year in Brisbane there’s a campaign about storm preparedness.

Community education can always be improved, and this might be a good time to review what is being done and how it can be strengthened. Of course, people will only listen to the community education if they believe that the risk of disaster is real – a point directly relevant to the gambler’s fallacy described above. And community education is only part of the mix – the ‘3 Es’ of social marketing remind us that we also need to focus on engineering (changing design to lessen disaster impact) and enforcement.