We knew we were in for a busy severe weather season. What was predicted has come true in recent weeks with many communities across Australia smashed by flood, storm, cyclone, fire and heat. Some have been hit more than once.
Our natural hazards season is perennial. So is much of our public discourse to each and every disaster – the headlines in recent weeks show themes that are recurrent from severe seasons past. Why were people not warned? Where is the defence force? Why are people even living in these places?
Emergency management is all about continuous improvement, and by their nature, disasters are extremely tricky to respond to. Nothing will ever be perfect. Steady improvements driven by research have culminated in the recent launch of the Australian Warning System, which has begun to provide consistent warnings across all types of emergencies (bushfire, flood, storm, cyclone and more) and across all states and territories.
The call to ‘do things better’ across the board in how we face natural hazards is understandable and genuine. To improve warnings, we first need to acknowledge that a warning system has multiple components. It starts with a science-based prediction that needs to be interpreted to specific time and location. This is then constructed into a ‘plain language’ public message with recommended actions. Then the message is distributed by a range of media, online, apps, SMS and elsewhere to targeted audiences. Finally, the message is received, understood and acted upon. At each step, there is scope for improvement.
A warning is only as good as the information it is based upon and as our climate changes so too must our understanding of the dynamic and complex weather systems that lead to major floods, bushfires, heatwaves, storms and cyclones.
Research is underway in Australia on many fronts to support better predictions across a range of hazards. This includes using a combination of satellite data, ground observations and weather models to better predict where and how flash flooding occurs, how deadly fire plumes and crown fires are formed over an active fireground, and where and when severe rainfall is likely to form. This will be aided by the growth in sensor networks and advanced computer modelling to predict hazards and their extent in a timely manner.
We already know what a good warning looks like. Research that tested the wording and structure of warning messages under actual hazard conditions has provided Australian emergency agencies with a better understanding of how messages are understood and translated into direct action. These include using clear, direct language, structuring information in easily understood formats and linking official warnings to other credible information sources. These strategies help people to quickly make sound decisions to save lives and property. Warning messages today differ greatly from what was produced even a few years ago.
Warnings must be timely. Much of the current discussion is around warnings of an urgent nature – the fire is in this street, the river has broken its banks, the thunderstorm is above the town. We are asking a lot from warnings delivered at the most urgent point of time, when the hazard is at its most chaotic, and when people (both emergency workers and those under threat) are under extreme stress. Research is looking at how we can better warn people under such circumstances – how the warning can be more personal and precise to an individual’s actual situation, how the warning can better communicate the uncertainties around how a hazard will occur, and how to warn people whose circumstances make them difficult to reach. There are opportunities too to improve forecasts with longer lead times to inform communities of the potential occurrence of natural hazards days to weeks ahead to improve their preparedness.
Even when warnings are received in time, research shows they do not always motivate a safe and timely response by the at-risk population.
Our research with Macquarie University, the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Southern Queensland after the 2022 floods in New South Wales and Queensland showed that over 60% of residents surveyed did not evacuate, despite receiving a warning. It was not a lack of timely warnings that motivated their decision making but other factors. For some, the decision to stay was part of their flood plan; many had stayed in previous floods and had been safe. Others stayed to lift up their belongings, to protect against looting, and to be around to quickly start the clean-up. Some stayed to look after less mobile dependents, care for pets and livestock, or because they had nowhere else to go.
This research shows that even when clear, accurate and locally specific warnings are communicated in a timely manner, people’s pre-existing social context greatly shapes their ability to act on information.
Life can be complex and chaotic. Precarious housing, limited finances, lack of local community connections, carer responsibilities or health challenges may make people reluctant or unable to act on warnings to prepare or evacuate. Further work is required on how best to deliver a warning message to the right person at the right time and place given this complexity, so that it is understood and acted upon.
We all have the most important of roles and must be prepared for emergencies regardless of if we receive an official warning. We all must understand our local risk and be ready to look after ourselves and each other.
Want to learn more about research on warnings? This video shows the power of warnings to save lives and how research has changed warnings in recent years.
How to cut through and influence the decisions of people facing floodwater This video shows that by using research findings, there are opportunities to cut through and influence the decisions of those faced with floodwaters to stop them before they enter.
Why do people drive through floodwater? Research asked over 2,000 Australians what they thought about driving through floodwater. Over 50% of those surveyed had driven through floodwater, with the most common reasons given included needing to return home, sightseeing and to run errands.