J1.7 CAP Message Blocks' Effectiveness to Communicate Tornado Warning Messages: What Message Block Elements are Most Important, and When?

Tuesday, 8 January 2013: 5:00 PM
Room 18D (Austin Convention Center)
Mark A. Casteel, Penn State Univ., York, PA; and J. R. Downing

The federal government is improving the existing Emergency Alert System through an initiative known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), with a special emphasis on mobile technologies. A critical component of IPAWS is the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEAs, but hereafter referred to as CMAS. Through CMAS, national weather service offices, emergency managers, and others can deliver emergency alerts (similar to but distinct from text messages) to the American public to cell phones that have the required software. There are three types of CMAS alerts: Presidential alerts, AMBER alerts, and Imminent threat-type alerts. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are tasked with this directive; however, in practice, given the frequency of severe weather throughout the United States, the National Weather Service (NWS) is responsible to initiate many of these messages. NWS officials will distribute the following types of alerts: Blizzard and Ice Storm Warnings, Dust Storm Warnings, Extreme Wind Warnings, Flash Flood Warnings, Hurricane and Typhoon Warnings, Lake Effect Snow Warnings, Tornado Warnings, and Tsunami Warnings. The NWS began to send CMAS messages in mid-June, 2012. CMAS messages use the emergency alert industry standard known as Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) for the message construction, which can include a variety of information. Also, at least in this version of CMAS, warning messages are limited to 90 characters. As FEMA implements CMAS alerts, Weather Forecast Office (WFO) professionals at the NWS plan to include five message components in CAP message blocks: “what is happening,” “area affected,” “time,” “recommended action,” and the “sending agency.” Currently, CMAS warnings are distributed at the county level. However, some wireless carriers are implementing sub-county alerts that attempt to reflect the area outlined by the warning polygon. As these warnings are in their infancy, the CAP message elements chosen to be included by the NWS appear reasonable. Still, it is an unclear if these particular CAP blocks are the most important message components to get the public to take protective action once the public receives a CMAS message. It is critical that CMAS (and indirectly, the NWS) deliver effective warning messages in 90 or fewer characters since wireless subscribers can “opt-out” of imminent threat-type messages. Indeed, the popular press has reported grumblings from members of the public who have received too many, seemingly inapplicable, weather warning messages. Therefore, it is critical that the public perceive these warning messages as both relevant and helpful so that they continue to receive CMAS messages. The research that we plan to report at the meeting represents our initial attempt to assess the importance of various CAP message elements. We chose to focus on tornado warnings given their rather common occurrence throughout a large section of the United States. Using a sample of undergraduates, we took the five CAP elements that WFO professional at the NWS use (what, where, time, recommended action, sending agency) and added two other components: a headline (e.g., “TORNADO DAMAGE THREAT….SIGNIFICANT”), plus a specific call-to-action instruction (e.g., “IF YOU ARE IN OR NEAR LIBERTY..SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY”). Keeney (2012) identifies both statements as possible messages, and each statement aligns closely with the NWS's new impact-based information warning system. We will ask participants to rank order each of the seven message elements by perceived importance. We will present each CAP element horizontally in a unique and random order for each participant. We then will ask participants to rate their likelihood to act on the message, using a Likert-type scale. We are interested if participants will perceive the more detailed information contained in the CAP message, represented by the “heading” and “instruction” elements, as more important than the five elements that the NWS currently includes in its warning messages. If accepted, we will report the results of our study and discuss how our results can inform CMAS policy.
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