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Australia: Impacts of conflicting cues in emergency warnings

Source(s):  Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC)

New research confirms a long-held suspicion that emergency warnings do not always have precedence when other sources conflict with official advice.

By CRC researchers Dr Paula Dootson, A/Prof Dominique Greer, Sophie Miller and Prof Vivienne Tippett. This article was first published in Issue Three 2019 of Fire Australia.

Australia’s emergency services agencies face immense challenges when responding to natural hazards. Evacuating people in affected regions requires time, influence, coordination and expertise. Triggering large-scale public evacuations in time-critical situations of flood or bushfire is problematic, as there is always some uncertainty about whether, or how, a natural hazard will occur. Compounding this problem is the fact that emergency services are not the only source of information that the public uses when considering taking action. Environmental cues such as the weather outside, information offered by the media or the actions peers are taking all influence people’s decisions and can inhibit taking timely protective action.

When cues from different information sources are in conflict, such as when a flood evacuation warning has been issued but the weather conditions in the immediate area appear sunny and fine, it can cause uncertainty about the right action to take. Our team, through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC project Effective risk and warning communication during natural hazards, found that conflicting cues do exist across multiple hazard types and can affect information processing of risk perceptions, and therefore prevent appropriate preventive action. 

Undertaking the research

This research draws on two models to explain the effect of conflicting clues: the Risk Information Seeking and Processing model and the Protective Action Decision model. The Risk Information Seeking and Processing model proposes seven factors that influence the extent to which people seek out information and the time they spend analysing it. These include:

  • individual characteristics
  • perceived hazard characteristics (i.e. risk perceptions)
  • affective response to the risk
  • social pressures to possess relevant information
  • information sufficiency
  • one's personal capacity to learn
  • belief's about the usefulness of information on various channels

The Risk Information Seeking and Processing model is built on the idea that just because information is available does not mean people will do anything to respond to it. The Protective Action Decision model suggests that an individual’s decision to engage in a protective action is informed by how they process socio-environmental cues alongside official communications. Environmental cues include smells and sights, while social cues incorporate the behaviour of others. This can produce modelling behaviours, media coverage as a form of authority to effect behaviours, and information from unofficial sources as another behavioural influence.

Previous research indicates that many situational and personal factors will affect an individual’s behaviour in an emergency, such as age, gender, language, country of birth and past experience with hazards. Our team surveyed 2,649 adults across all Australian states and territories about bushfires and floods. The respondents were randomly assigned to one of 32 experimental conditions that presented them with an emergency warning (‘prepare to evacuate’ or ‘evacuate now’) and either an environmental cue – e.g. a gif (an image file that supports both animated and static images) of a sunny day, bushfire or flood – or one of three social cues – e.g. a media article suggesting evacuating or staying, an organisation releasing an unofficial warning suggesting evacuating or staying, or observed behaviour of neighbours evacuating or staying.

Taking protective action in the event of bushfire or flood can mean any number of things, including preparing property and family for evacuation, calling for emergency assistance or telling friends or family about the event. The survey also collected information on participants’ age, gender, language, country of birth and past experience with hazards to ascertain whether these impacted the likelihood of taking protective action. Our research has confirmed emergency services agencies’ suspicions that conflicting cues can affect information processing of risk perceptions, and therefore prevent appropriate protective action. The significant results were evenly spread across hazards, suggesting the problem is not unique to one hazard.


Consistent cues

Consistent cues refers to when the instruction in the emergency warning was consistent with the environmental cue and social cues of media, a warning from an unofficial organisation, and peer behaviour. When presented with consistent cues, participants were more likely to intend to evacuate; perceive risk about the event; share information with friends, family and peers; find emergency warnings to be effective; comprehend the information; and have a higher current information level.

Behavioural intentions to evacuate: participants were more likely to intend to evacuate under the ‘bushfire, evacuate now’, condition when the emergency warning was consistent with a social cue from the media.

Risk perceptions about the flood/bushfire: perceived hazard characteristics were higher for participants when they received consistent instructions from emergency warnings, environmental cues and social cues of media and unofficial warning organisations across bushfire and flood, and across both escalations of warnings.

Sharing information with friends, family and peers: information sharing was more likely for participants who received consistent environmental and media cues across ‘flood, prepare to evacuate’ and ‘bushfire, evacuate now’ warnings.

Perceived effectiveness: perceived effectiveness has to do with how attention-grabbing, powerfully informative, meaningful and convincing the emergency warning was, and whether it was worth remembering. Participants perceived emergency warnings to be more effective when social cues from the media and unofficial warning organisations were consistent with emergency warnings or ‘evacuate now’ messages across flood and bushfire.

Perceived comprehension: perceived comprehension has to do with how easy it was for participants to understand the message and comprehend the information in the message. Perceived comprehension was higher for participants who received a ‘bushfire, evacuate now’ warning that was consistent with the social cue of an unofficial warning organisation.

Current information level: current information level refers to the participants’ perceived knowledge of a hazard. Participants perceived they had a higher current information level when they received a ‘flood, evacuate now’ emergency warning consistent with a social cue from an unofficial warning organisation.

Conflicting cues

Conflicting cues refers to when the instruction in the warning message conflicted with the environmental and social cues, unofficial warning organisations and peer behaviour. When faced with conflicting cues, participants were more likely to seek out additional information, while their information processing and self-efficacy were affected.

Seek out further information: information-seeking refers to the participants’ likelihood of searching for information about a hazard in order to understand it better, as opposed to tuning out when the topic of the hazard comes up. Participants were more likely to seek information when a ‘bushfire, prepare to evacuate’ emergency warning conflicted with the social cue of an unofficial warning organisation. While seeking out additional information is sometimes encouraged and thus could be considered a protective action, it can result in milling behaviour– a communicative process whereby individuals come together in an attempt to define the situation, confirm the threat or risk, and propose and adopt new behaviours (known as protective actions). Getting stuck in the milling process for extended periods of time can potentially place individuals in danger.

Process the information: heuristic information processing happens when individuals skim through information, do not spend much time thinking about the information, or believe they have been presented with far more information than they personally need about a topic. Heuristic information processing was higher for participants who received a ‘flood, evacuate now’ warning that was consistent with the social cue of peers evacuating. Seemingly, the social cue was enough confirmation so they did not need to read more of the warning or seek further confirmation. Conversely, heuristic information processing was found to be higher for participants who received a ‘flood, prepare to evacuate’ emergency warning that was in conflict with the social cue of an unofficial warning organisation.

Ability to follow the instruction: self-efficacy has to do with a person’s perceived ability to complete a task or engage in a specific action. Participants perceived their self-efficacy to be higher when the emergency warning was consistent with the social cue of peers performing evacuation actions in the bushfire context. Interestingly, participants perceived their self-efficacy to be higher when the ‘bushfire, evacuate now’ emergency warning conflicted with the media social cue.

What next?

Our team is planning to develop and test intervention to mitigate the negative effects of conflicting cues to improve protective action. Among other things, the intervention could include an acknowledgment of the potential existence of conflicting cues in official emergency warnings. It could also require emergency warnings to better convey a sense of urgency. The outcomes of our research have the potential to optimise emergency warnings and encourage community compliance. 

Word from the emergency services

“To have empirical evidence of how conflicting cues can impact what the community thinks and how they act is important for us because it helps emergency services agencies tailor the information and warnings it delivers to the community during emergency events. These findings, combined with the next stage of the research project, will help us develop ways to address ambiguity caused by conflicting cues to encourage the community to take protective action. Specifically, we will use these findings and future work to inform how we can tailor warnings and the key messages delivered by operational personnel to acknowledge the lack of environmental and visual cues of the immediate threat.” — Hayley Gillespie, Executive Manager Media at Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.

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  • Publication date 04 Sep 2019

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