Tuesday, 24 January 2012: 5:00 PM
The Hurricane Forecast and Warning System: Boundary Spanning and Inter-Organizational Struggles
Room 356 (New Orleans Convention Center )
Hurricanes are devastating natural hazards that cause death and injury and result in billions of dollars of property loss each year. Populations in hurricane-prone areas continue to be at risk and, in some cases, are becoming more vulnerable (Gladwin et al. 2007b; Pielke et al. 2003). As stated in Gladwin et al. (2007b), although public warning systems have been studied for decades, “warning systems in general need more research, as do the structure, format, and timing of hurricane warnings in particular” (p. 89). And, as pointed out by Phillips and Morrow (2007), “fully understanding the depth and breadth of forecasting and warning as it applies to vulnerable populations calls for a wider variety of methodological strategies” (p. 65). Traditional conceptions of the hurricane warning system tended to see the communication processes among actors as largely linear. These processes are now better understood as non-linear, especially in light of new communication technologies One relevant framework from communication theory is the community-based communication infrastructure system (Heath et al. in press; O'Hair 2005), which emphasizes non-hierarchical interaction processes among messages, actors, and communication channels. This framework considers the increasing adoption of new communication technologies and a renewed emphasis on community participation in risk management. These highly non-linear conceptualizations of the hurricane warning system guide the current study, which assesses how message content is developed and accessed, what communication channels are used by various actors, and how these affect people's comprehension of and reaction to messages. This paper assesses the actors involved in the hurricane warning and forecast process. The hurricane forecast warning system is a complex system incorporating players from federal government agencies, local government entities, and local and national media sources. The National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service are branches of the federal entity the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Given the interconnected nature of the distinct organizations and players that participate in this process, boundary spanning Because organizations must interact with diverse external environments to sustain their existence, boundary spanners, or those who interact with such external environments, are essential for organizations to succeed (Johnson, 2008). Boundary spanners are individuals “who operate at the periphery or boundary of an organization, performing organizational relevant tasks, relating the organization with the elements outside it” (Leifer and Delbecq, 1978, p. 40). These individuals are responsible for making contacts with outside organizations, and to supply the members of their organization with information necessary for functioning given the external environments (Johnson, 2008). Concerning emergency management, O'Hair, Kelley, and Wiliams, (2010) note that relations between the organizations must be forged prior to events such as natural disasters because responding to such events only becomes more complex if sufficient planning is lacking. Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted with various actors in the forecast and warning process, including three broadcast meteorologists, four emergency managers along the coast of Texas, and three National Weather Service forecasters. Consistently, we found inter-organizational struggles that the “boundary spanners” must manage during the forecast process. The most prominent inter-organizational struggles are briefly mentioned below. During hurricane season, both broadcast meteorologists and National Weather forecasters rely heavily on the information provided by the National Hurricane Center (NHC). However, a visible struggle exists between the media broadcast meteorologists, the National Weather Service forecasters, and the National Hurricane Center concerning the timeliness of the National Hurricane Center reports. Although both groups are gravely concerned with disseminating information to the public concerning an impending weather risk, broadcast meteorologists appear concerned with the timeliness of the message. Although the broadcast meteorologists and National Weather Service employees were quick to acknowledge the National Hurricane Center as their prominent partner in the warning system, they are less than satisfied regarding the timeliness of the communication from the NHC. The broadcast meteorologists are in an interesting relationship with the National Hurricane Center. As one broadcast meteorologist described, he has a “push” only relationship with the NHC because he is not in dialogue with the NHC concerning hurricane information. Broadcast meteorologists are not alone in their frustrations with the timing of the National Hurricane Center in releasing information. The National Weather Service forecasters also exhibited frustrations concerning the timing of the messages from the National Hurricane Center. National Weather Service employees require this pertinent information so that they can make accurate forecasts for the impending storms, and without the information, they feel that they are unable to perform their job adequately. Another evident inter-organizational struggle pertains to the disseminating of information regarding the impending storm. Emergency managers and broadcast meteorologists expressed different views concerning information dissemination in the local community. In communicating weather-related information, the emergency managers acknowledge the inherent presence of uncertainty, but they strive to disseminate accurate information. In discussing the media, the emergency managers perceive that the media is a business, first and foremost, and that even broadcast meteorologists are merely working toward deadlines. The emergency managers perceive that the media are more concerned with quickly disseminating information to the public to meet their broadcast deadlines than they are with ensuring that the information they issue is reputable and credible. The emergency managers expressed that they are far more concerned with delivering accurate information rather than disseminating it as quickly as possible. Thus, the agenda of the emergency managers is accuracy; they want the information issued to the public to be accurate and timely. However, the broadcast meteorologists perceive that they are simply getting the message out as quickly as possible to the people needing it. Two broadcast meteorologists explicitly discussed concerns surrounding “media sensationalism,” and the incorrect perception that the media is more concerned with disseminating a riveting story than with providing information to a public in need. Thus, there are inter-organizational struggles that boundary spanners from each organization must manage and navigate when planning and disseminating information in the wake of an impending hurricane. The aim of this paper is to improve the hurricane warning system by identifying opportunities to enhance communication and content of hurricane information in ways that facilitate protective decision-making.