7.5 Using the Forecaster Interactive Mapping of Vulnerability Exercise (FIMoVE) Tool to Identify Strengths and Gaps in the Continuum of High Impact Weather Communication: Assessing the Knowledge−Communication−Community Network During VORTEX-SE 2015-2017

Wednesday, 10 January 2018: 9:30 AM
Ballroom F (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Jack R. Friedman, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; and M. J. Wagner

There is no single, cookie-cutter, “magic bullet” solution to the “problem” of communicating high impact weather information. The fact that substantial time, effort, and resources have been spent on trying to reduce this “problem” to a cluster of individual causes and solutions (e.g., wording of warnings, colors of graphics, warning fatigue, placement of sirens) reflects the priorities and hopes of people in the physical sciences more than the empirically-grounded data and findings of those social scientists who have been involved in studying all of the facets of communication. Communicating high impact weather information to the public, to emergency managers and other partners, and, even, among partners in the forecasting and meteorology community itself is a problem with no easy and no singular solutions. Established strategies of changing a word (e.g., watches vs. warnings) or wording (e.g., adding “tags” that are hoped to evoke a sense of urgency or responsiveness on the part of the public) or graphic design (e.g., colors, patterns) has, at best, been anecdotally effective and, at worst, has been shown to be ineffective. Improvements in words, wording, and graphics have certainly made communication of high impact weather clearer; but, the question remains whether or not the impact on human behavior and the protection of life and property can be clearly correlated to those improvements. These approaches reflect the desire to find a “magic bullet” solution – a solution that is simple, cheap, does not require a revolutionary change in the nature of meteorological communication, and that can be easily standardized and generalized across all places and times. In many ways, these approaches represent a bureaucratized way of finding a solution to a problem that remains, in many ways, intractable because of the idiosyncratic and ephemeral nature of each element of the problem – forecasting, communication, and the social context toward which communication is directed. In many ways, the commitment to finding a magic bullet solution reflects the organizational, institutional, and historical nature of the weather enterprise. But, in other ways, it also reveals a problematic approach to engaging with the social sciences – one in which social complexity is ignored by performing a kind of vivisection on the Social, carving out the “communication” parts from the broader social world; while, simultaneously, minimizing, ignoring, or treating as intractable those other aspects of the social that are inextricably linked to human communication (e.g., economics, culture, social networks).

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.

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