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Improving the Effectiveness of Emergency Evacuation Warnings

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By Kimberly Arsenault
Contributor, EDM Digest

As the California fires raged in 2017, people were reluctant to leave their homes and belongings until, in some cases, it was too late. Once the fires were over, at-risk residents were ordered to evacuate when torrential rains fell across an area ravaged by the Thomas Fire -- an area that existed in the Santa Ynez Mountains above the residents of Montecito, California.

Some residents chose not to evacuate. That decision cost them their lives.

Repeated Evacuation Orders Went Out to California Residents

The catastrophic debris flow that slammed into Montecito after the Thomas Fire killed 21 people, left 2 people missing and destroyed more than 100 homes. Several levels of evacuation orders were issued. However, many residents failed to heed the warnings.

Evacuation orders were again issued for parts of California effective at noon on March 1st, as an approaching storm threatened heavy rainfalls in areas recently impacted by major fires. Mandatory evacuations were issued for those residents living under the burn scar areas from the Thomas, Sherpa and Whittier fires. Those evacuation orders were sent out to the public via multiple methods, including a press release to the media, Twitter, Facebook and the CalFire website.

But this time, the question is: Did residents comply with the mandatory evacuation orders or did they simply ignore the warning because they rode out the last threat relatively unscathed?

History Shows that Ignoring or Delaying Response to Evacuation Warnings Is Deadly

History is filled with examples of horrific outcomes when residents in imminent danger have ignored or delayed compliance with evacuation warnings. But history also shows us how early evacuation warnings, when heeded, save lives and prevent greater tragedies.

Why Do Some People Still Ignore Evacuation Warnings?

Many studies have been conducted to determine why people fail to follow mandatory evacuation orders. The reasons are both simple and complex in nature.

Failure to evacuate may depend upon the demographics of the individuals at risk, such as financial resources, available shelter for family members, pets and livestock, and structural mitigation measures already taken by residents. Complacency, apathy and a sense of 'it won't happen to me' also play a part in whether people heed an evacuation warning or not. Any past success of riding out a storm plays a major factor in their evacuation decision.

These studies also show that some people are simply unable to evacuate due to disabilities, lack of transportation or lack of assistance. Other reasons people fail to evacuate include a fear of their home being looted or damaged, along with not wishing to leave behind a familiar place they know as home and all its memories.

This reluctance to leave also includes the structure that houses all of their personal belongings, which have accumulated over a lifetime. Those personal possessions help homeowners maintain connections with people they have lost over the years.

Montecito Residents May Not Have Truly Understood Mudslide Threat and Urgent Need to Evacuate

More complex reasons that people fail to heed evacuation warnings include a lack of knowledge and training. Some residents simply do not understand the threat and its potential dangers. There is a strong need for emergency education and training to be high on the list of how to ensure at-risk residents heed evacuation warnings.

Did residents of Montecito understand that a raging wildfire had left a burn scar across a vast region of earth? Did they understand that due to the fire, rainfall could not be absorbed by trees, shrubs and other vegetation that would allow rain to seep into the ground instead of becoming runoff?

Also, did Montecito residents understand just how far debris could travel and its voracious appetite for consuming everything in its path? Did they truly comprehend and realize just how deadly the threat was from a debris flow?

Do We Need to Improve How We Communicate Nature's Threats to the Public?

As emergency and disaster management professionals, we are immersed in the field. We have a healthy understanding of just how quickly a tornado, earthquake, tsunami or debris flow can destroy everything in its path. We speak the language of our field, understand the nuances of the implied threat and calculate risk in a much more educated fashion.

We speak the familiar EDM lingo. But I wonder, do we sometimes fail to step outside the EDM circle? Do we realize that what is clear and understandable to us in this field might be obscure, fleeting or completely foreign to others around us? How many times a day do you speak to someone and use industry jargon? Do you assume that the individual you are talking with truly understands what you are saying or trying to explain?

Experience is a marvelous teacher, but unless someone has gone through a wildfire, hurricane, tornado or other disaster that directly impacted them, the threat is not tangible or comprehensible. As emergency management professionals, we study the final results of when people fail to heed warnings issued by officials who were simply trying to prevent tragedy in the lives of others, ingraining it forever in our minds.

People outside of our field often have little understanding of just how deadly forces of nature can be and that nature can cost them their lives in the blink of an eye. Often, local residents view disasters as just something that happens to people in other places.

Changes in Geographic Locations Often Leave Community Newcomers Unprepared for Threats

Even a change in geographic location from one state to another changes the risks people face. Some community residents may be left in the dark about one or more relevant threats and be grossly unprepared for disaster. Moving may increase or decrease their exposure to another threat or threats.

I once had an encounter, just a short time ago, which was a perfect example of being unprepared for threats. I was talking with a woman who had just moved to the area shortly after the new year.

When I spoke to her about the severe weather season approaching, she gave me a blank look. I explained that tornadoes were likely in the spring. I told her that we live in an area referred to as "Dixie Alley," and asked if she had a plan for sheltering her family if a tornado warning was issued.

She had never even considered that her area saw frequent tornadoes. As a result, this woman had no plan for protecting her family and was distressed at the thought her family members could be at risk.

Improving Emergency Alerts for Greater Compliance

In an attempt to gain greater compliance with evacuation warnings, California changed the wording of its evacuation orders following the deadly debris flow in Montecito. California officials dropped the word 'voluntary' completely from its evacuation vocabulary, in an attempt to clarify the risk that residents faced.

More specific maps also help clarify where evacuation boundaries lie. However, there were some issues with the accuracy of alerts that officials sought to push to mobile phones.

Officials chose not to use the Wireless Emergency Alert System because they were concerned that a lack of geographic accuracy would place people who were not at risk in harm's way during an evacuation. They also feared that unnecessary departures would impede the progress of people who were actually at risk by clogging roadways and limiting routes of egress.

As technology improves, the ability to have greater accuracy in the issuance of evacuation orders is likely to help reduce the number of people required to evacuate. Greater accuracy will further assist with the credibility of the officials who issue the evacuation orders.

FCC Changed Wireless Emergency Alerts in November 2017

In November 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) added new changes to the wireless emergency alert system. Now, it is a requirement for participating wireless carriers to transmit alerts to the best approximation of the geographic area impacted by an emergency, no matter what the size of that area.

By November 30, 2019, geo-targeting cannot overshoot 1/10th of a mile past the target area. This new rule is a welcome change from carriers simply being required to alert the entire county or counties where an emergency is located.

Why Is This FCC Change So Important?

Sending precisely targeted emergency alerts only to individuals and families truly impacted by the threat will increase evacuation warning effectiveness. It will also reduce issues that lead to a lack of compliance with evacuation orders, including crying wolf (threat was not really for their area), complacency, skepticism, credibility and public perception of the warning.

However, we cannot forget about educating the public regarding more precisely targeted warnings. The media often softly address or merely note evacuation warnings.

Our primary job as emergency management practitioners is to help prepare, protect, and respond to our communities. Shouldn't community education and training be a major part of that process?

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.