1.1 The Science Base for Effective, Actionable Guidance for the Public

Tuesday, 24 January 2017: 1:30 PM
615 (Washington State Convention Center )
Jacqueline Snelling, FEMA, Washington, DC

Every day we see and hear headlines of impending severe weather. We see vivid images of the destructive impact, and we hear tragic stories of the deaths and injuries.

All of us in the weather enterprise, through our many roles, share the mission to provide guidance and to motivate actions to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce damage. We have the audacity to aspire to change the culture to achieve resilience for individuals, communities, the nation, and beyond. At AMS, we are committed to working together to build multi-disciplinary data-driven, science driven decisions to meet the challenges to move us forward.

Are we meeting this challenge in the guidance we provide to the public? When we succeed in motivating people to consider actions to prepare and respond, do we consistently provide the science-based guidance? Or, are there gaps in the necessary observations and information we should bring to bear? This presentation addresses three questions for AMS consideration and provides examples from a recent FEMA review of the validation of protective actions for 12 natural hazards. 

  1. Is our guidance to the public based on the validated science that we and the public expect?

  2. If there are gaps, what are they?

  3. How can we address the gaps?

 First - Is guidance science based?

FEMA has conducted a review of over 380 discrete protective actions for 12 natural hazards. With the assistance of more than 80 subject matter experts from the academic community, the review has identified about 275 research studies and articles related to the evidence base for the protective actions. Using a “stoplight” approach, the review has evaluated the evidence for these key protective actions as green or sufficient, yellow or conditional, and red or insufficient or not validated. Although most key actions are validated, there are important gaps.

Most of the “key actions” are validated by observational/casualty data – data that, according to the researchers, is of varying sources and quality. Multiple scenarios for a single named hazard are not sufficiently defined by the specific environmental conditions to identify the relevant protective actions. This leads to guidance that does not provide support for connecting the condition factors and decisions for action. Most expedient and “last resort” actions are highly situational and not validated for predicable efficacy. Perhaps tragically, guidance for last resort actions is in demand. In many cases, protective actions are policy decisions based on assumptions of individual and community capabilities that vary by natural environment, built environment, and social context.  

Second – What are the gaps?  

There are gaps, particularly, in the ability to link the likely environmental conditions, the built environment, and the social environment for timely actionable protective decisions pre-event to prepare and mitigate for a planned response.  Much of the current risk information, including casualty data, is developed independently by discipline and does not provide a complete understanding of the human factors and circumstances of effective protections or of deaths and injuries.  An integrated approach would improve understanding and strategies regarding the changing factors that impact information, options, decisions, and effective actions for different timeframes including planned actions as well as expedient or “last resort” actions. 

Third, how can we address the gaps?

There are several strategies that could be combined to expand our knowledge and ability to validate the efficacy of protective actions by the public. We need to improve interdisciplinary observations, data collection, and analysis to inform risk, protective actions, and mitigation. Scenarios or frameworks that build situational models could help refine the interdisciplinary understanding.  As an example, we should consider creating separate scenarios for each likely set of factors for types of flooding. This would make it possible to develop protective action messaging that is relevant to locations, actionable for the specific context of the location, and consistent throughout the timeframe from preparedness to watches and warnings. The frameworks should serve as a method for identifying actions in all time phases from pre-event preparedness, mitigation, response, and through recovery. The frameworks would also provide an approach to identify the specific decisions for action that can benefit from research testing rather than the current approach to validation of the outcomes that are a result of multiple decision points.


The interdisciplinary science validation of protective actions is still in a developmental stage despite considerable work by many. Interdisciplinary coalitions and communities of practice are beginning to emerge to focus more directly on strategies for advancing this science through integrated frameworks for data collection, analysis, and application. We have an opportunity now to define and expand this interdisciplinary approach for effective, actionable guidance to the public to build a culture of resilience.

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