The research summarized in this presentation comes from a study that has attempted to counteract the problem of over-reduction of complexity by focusing on a holistic understanding of uncertainty, forecasting, and communication across four points in the meteorology and communication of high impact weather: NWS forecasters, county emergency managers, broadcast meteorologists, and publics. The research for this study was conducted along with a team of social scientists during the 2016 and 2017 Northern Alabama VORTEX-SE field research initiatives. Northern Alabama has suffered significant deaths and property damage from deadly tornadoes – the most dramatic of these being the super outbreak of April 2011 – but, there are aspects of the demographics, human geography, local cultures, and history of experiences with severe weather that continue to exacerbated the challenges of protecting life and property despite these acknowledged risks and vulnerabilities. Beginning from the hypothesis that the challenges facing communicating high impact weather information are more or less different everywhere, we sought to understand not only what is unique about Northern Alabama, but, also, what distinctions between communities could be made throughout Northern Alabama in order to improve (or even tailor) communication about severe weather. While simultaneously examining the various publics across this region, we also examined how meteorologists understood the various publics and communities across this region. We hypothesized that what meteorologists do and do not know/believe about their interlocutors when communicating weather information impacts the way that messaging is crafted, packaged, and distributed.
In order to gather information about what specific, spatially-organized knowledge is held by NWS forecasters about the people and communities in their warning area, the lead author designed an interactive tool – the Forecaster Interactive Mapping of Vulnerability Exercise (FIMoVE) Tool – that was fielded during 2017. The FIMoVE records forecasters navigating a local map of their warning area, telling stories and identifying the specific vulnerabilities and challenges regarding how to best communicate weather information, risks, probabilities, and preparedness best-practices to local communities throughout Northern Alabama. The FIMoVE Tool asks forecasters to describe these communities holistically – not just how they may or may not be prepared for severe weather, but, how they think that people in these communities live, how they spend their time, who they know, etc. For instance, it is not just that the meteorologists were asked to categorize the housing stock in a location (e.g., single family homes, mobile homes, or apartment complexes), but, to describe these abodes as places where people live, raise families, etc. In other words, the FIMoVE Tool has been developed to capture how forecasters see the people who they are communicating to as more than just targets of a message who, despite all of their efforts, frustratingly continue to behave “irrationally” in the face of communication about high impact weather risks. Findings gathered through the use of FIMoVE are, then, compared to the real-time behaviors and communication of these meteorologists observed during the Spring 2016 and 2017 VORTEX-SE field seasons, when the lead author conducted hundreds of hours of in situ, ethnographic observation of over a dozen severe weather events and recorded 184 interviews with the forecasters at an NWS Weather Forecasting Office. In describing the uses and findings of the FIMoVE Tool, the author describes how the assessment of the holistic knowledge of a forecaster’s “target audience” can shed light on how to improve the communication of high impact weather information and what behavioral responses can be expected if this communication is successful.