J51.2 Decision Support - What We Say and How We Say It Makes a Difference: A Look at Effective Communication toward Appropriate Partner Preparedness.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020: 3:15 PM
257AB (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Eric Boldt, NWS, Oxnard, CA

The critical part of the National Weather Service’s (NWS) mission is to support its core partners who can take decision-support information from the NWS and turn it into actionable intelligence. It’s the NWS partners that ultimately then play a key role in protecting their communities to mitigate potential impacts to community lives and livelihoods. Thus the information from the NWS must be received, understood, and trusted by its partners in order to have the greatest positive effect on the vision of a Weather Ready Nation: Society is prepared and responds to weather, water, and climate dependent events. Most important is the foundation of trust that is built over time through strong relationships between the NWS and its partners – trust that is essential to appropriate partner responses.

There are various ways in which the NWS can provide information to core partners, including through the standardized suite of routine and non-routine products (e.g., forecasts, watches, and warnings). However, the NWS has evolved beyond the plain black and white text of these products and now may reach its partners through specialized web graphics, emails, direct phone calls, online webinars and most importantly, by being onsite at incident command posts and emergency operations centers to provide direct decision support. However, it’s not just what the NWS provides for its partners that have the greatest impact. Rather, what can bring the highest level of response is the actual content of that information (including newly developed ways to communicate threat levels) and how it’s delivered. A perfect example is by comparing the partner response to “we expect rainfall rates to be as high as one inch per hour,” to “we expect rainfall rates that could be three times [emphasis] the rainfall rate thresholds set by the US Geological Survey determined to potentially produce debris flows.” Or comparing, “we expect winds of 30-40 mph with gusts to 60 mph, along with relative humidity levels between 10 and 15 percent,” to “this fire weather event is expected to have conditions similar to those that resulted in the 1990 Painted Cave fire.”

This presentation will provide several excellent examples of how the NWS Los Angeles/Oxnard office recently provided Decision Support Services (DSS) for its partners for both weather and water high impact events that, in some cases, resulted in an unprecedented partner response and ultimately helped reduce the impacts on its communities. Focus will be on the forms of DSS provided, along with important message content, design, and delivery methods. Examples will include DSS provided in advance of a very strong Santa Ana (hot, dry winds that can fan large wildfires in southern California) that led to the Thomas Fire in December and January of 2017-18. Messages such as “strongest Santa Ana of the season thus far” and numerous conference and direct phone calls were provided days in advance of the event. Although the fire at the time ended up being the largest wildfire in recorded California history, the number of fatalities was remarkably low as was the number of structures destroyed. It was later learned that the Ventura County Fire Department ordered “Plan 3” staffing levels prior to when the fire started, meaning “all hands on deck”. This staffing level is typically reserved for after a fire starts – thus this represented a nearly unprecedented response for this agency.

Following the Thomas Fire were threats of debris flows caused by intense rain on the steep, scarred hillsides. The NWS Los Angeles office provided DSS for its partners as much as 6 days in advance of when heavy rain was expected to hit the area in the early morning of January 9, 2018. The information for partners provided in NWS products, emails, webinars, direct phone calls, and press briefings resulted in Santa Barbara County issuing evacuation orders more than a day in advance for approximately 21,000 residents of Montecito, just below the new Thomas burn scar. It was the first time the county had issued evacuation orders for a non-wildfire event. Despite these evacuations, however, 23 lives were tragically lost in Montecito when very intense rain brought a fast-moving wall of mud, rocks, and debris through the city around 4:00 am that morning. But because of the pre-positioning of specialized resources (e.g., high water vehicles) by the county in advance of the storm, officials reported that 800 rescues were performed in Montecito in the 24 hours immediately after the event. County officials estimate the fatality count would have been closer to 100 had it not been for that preparedness level.

Several other examples will be presented to demonstrate the power of how information is provided and what that information contains, and the difference it can make in appropriate partner actions to save lives and livelihoods. In addition, the presentation will provide examples of new messaging NWS Los Angeles has developed to shape information in a way that its partners can understand, such as using percentiles to describe the rarity of the event. Also to be demonstrated in this presentation will be the importance of the NWS working with its core partners after a weather or water event to collect information on their preparedness actions. This is information that goes well beyond capturing the impact of the event through, for instance, lives lost or structures destroyed. Rather, it’s information that the NWS can use to either validate its DSS methods and content, or provide valuable feedback for improvement.

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