This month’s article stretched over two pages in the Bulletin, so I’ve pasted the text below:

Maintaining Resiliency and Shaping Discourse Following a False Alarm

By Todd J. Jasper

On a Thursday night in October 2011, the University of Maryland (UMD) sent three urgent warnings through a variety of methods to campus personnel about an imminent tornado. As sirens sounded on the UMD campus, students huddled in hallways and concerned parents feared for the worst. “#Terps,” an official tweet announced, “A tornado is forecast to hit the campus within the next 13 minutes. Seek shelter immediately.” Although no tornado actually formed, UMD still had a problem on its hands. The tornado warning was a false alarm.

Despite the fact that the National Weather Service never issued a tornado warning for the area, the University issued its own warnings out of an overabundance of caution. After the false alarm in 2011, the UMD community and the media crucified the university for sending the alert. UMD was accused of “crying wolf”, generating “hype”, and acting prematurely.

False alarms can take many different forms (such as the non-existent tornado at UMD, a fire alarm that sounds when there is no fire, or even a student who is seen walking with a rifle that turns out to be an umbrella). Almost all false alarms hurt the credibility of the agency sending the message and then retracting it. The emergency management and risk communication field relies on constituents’ trust in the senders in order to motivate the public to act when a hazard is imminent. This symbiotic relationship between message senders and message recipients is crucial to maintaining institutional resiliency. The consequences for every false alarm are, unfortunately, not simply limited to any one specific incident; but rather, constitute a threat to the resiliency and future efficacy of the sending agency (and even other jurisdictions).

If we use the DHS Risk Lexicon definition of resiliency as the “ability to adapt to changing conditions and prepare for, withstand, and rapidly recover from disruption”, then it is clear that false alarms serve as a disruption within the normal emergency notification system. Indeed, Major and Erwin’s 1998 article (“Exploring the ‘Cry Wolf’ Hypothesis” in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters) finds that “individuals who have experienced predictions of disasters that do not materialize will discount the validity of subsequent disaster warnings.”

From a resiliency standpoint, every false alarm must be considered a disruption in need of remedy in order to mitigate cascading effects false alarms have on the efficacy of future emergency notifications, alerts, and warnings. Through experience and research, the following three points are crucial action items for emergency managers and risk communicators:

Emergency Notification Protocols are a Must-Have

Most agencies and organizations are lucky if they have pre-scripted messages available for the most common incidents. Pre-scripted (or “canned”) messages are helpful for establishing tone, consistency, and avoiding unnecessary emergency management jargon. Even more helpful, though, are emergency notification protocols that explicitly state a framework for when, why, and how emergency notifications will be made. Designing, developing, and then (most importantly!) exercising and training with emergency notification protocols is the most proactive approach to preventing the dissemination of unfounded emergency notifications. If we can prevent false alarms, we can negate the need for recovery from a false alarm.

We all understand that false alarms will occur eventually, but having emergency notification protocols as a justification for sending an alert can provide the media and others critical of the incident a reasonable and logical explanation. Although policies and protocols are not infallible, explaining to an inconvenienced constituency that the system worked as intended (through the use of established and trained protocols) is usually is a compelling response. It is likely that the media will question the appropriateness of the protocols–but that is the first step of shaping the public discourse.

Retract the Warning Immediately

As soon as it is clear that the warning was made in error, the agency or organization should retract the warning using the same means and methods use to distribute the false alarm. Not all retractions are equal. The best retractions state the reason for the false alarm in very simple language, should provide specific guidance for the future, and a method for obtaining additional information. For example, the following retraction accomplishes all of the aforementioned pointed: “The National Weather Service has cancelled the tornado warning at [insert specific time/date]. It is no longer necessary to shelter-in-place. Please be cautious on the roads and be alert for any other weather warnings or watches that may occur in the future. For more information, …”.

Use a False Alarm as an Opportunity for Improvement

False alarms are essentially no-notice full-scale exercises with constituents participating in real-time. While a false alarm is no one’s idea of a good time, it is an opportunity to connect with your constituency in a positive manner. It is a perfect time to spread preparedness guidance, such as “although today’s warning was cancelled, it may be the perfect motivation to check on your emergency supplies, review your family’s emergency plan, and get more information on what to do if today’s threat had been real.”

Additionally, following a false alarm, agencies and organizations should clearly review protocols and procedures for distributing a warning. Any corrective actions should be captured in an after-action report and improvement plan.

The Way Forward

Although false alarms should be rare, it is better to have a false alarm than to delay sending an alert only to discover the threat was real and the public could have been warned sooner. UMD received significant criticism about their premature tornado warning, but their intentions were nothing but honest and good. Ten years prior to the false alarm, two sisters were killed when a tornado tore a destructive path through the UMD campus. At that time, UMD had no warning system.

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