Crisis management: how can better the public be warned more effectively?

Each time a disaster occurs, journalists ask the same question: did you notify the population beforehand and, if so, why didn’t you do so faster? In other words, in our society, which is permanently online with continuous access to information and surrounded by social media chatter, how can reliable, high-performance warning systems be implemented in order to minimise the risks of disaster due to a lack of publicly-available information?

Whether faced with the risk of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster outside people’s control, citizens want and demand to be notified accurately wherever possible. Floods, storms and other overwhelming catastrophes nevertheless have tragic and even fatal consequences and seem impossible to justify in an era where a tweet is all it takes to warn the populace.

In current models that are implemented by government departments, the crisis management process can be broken down into six stages.

 

But what is a disaster?

“A disaster is an interruption to the normal operations of an organisation or society at large, resulting from a sudden and forceful event, which represents a substantial threat to the stability or the very existence of the organisation or society,” says the guide published by the authorities.

However, for the population at large, a disaster is first and foremost something to be avoided. In the worst case scenario, they expect that the authorities will anticipate the disaster and provide them with a timely warning. As such, the warnings of Météo France, the French weather service, are under constant examination and we don’t hesitate to criticise them for their inaccuracy (no matter whether they are too optimistic or too pessimistic!) Whether we are warned when nothing happens, or notified too late, as citizens we cannot understand how current technology cannot warn them of an impending flood or tropical storm. The responses following Hurricane Irma’s landfall on Saint-Barthélemy or the floods in the Aude region during October 2018 bear witness to the fact that a lack of information for the public can lead to major damage.

Nevertheless, according to Marc Pontaud, Director of Research at Météo France, who was interviewed by BFM TV, Météo France achieves its “service levels

” by failing to predict only two to three per cent of major events and recording an annual rate of false alarms of only 15%, which exceeds the expectations of the French government. Nevertheless, while the public’s expectations are undoubtedly too high, any victim might be heavily influenced by an emotional reaction to extreme situations “the likes of which we have never seen before.”

Christian Sommade, an expert in risk analysis and crisis management, as well as Executive Director of Resiliency advises us that, when a disaster occurs, the challenge is to communicate effectively: “In a disaster situation, all stakeholders must be able to communicate quickly and easily and share a wide range of information. The aim is to respond quickly.”

 

The key word of crisis management: Anticipation

In the crisis management process, the anticipatory phase is essential. Moreover, as ever, the goal is to prepare effectively, in line with the old saying that “prevention is better than cure.” “The aim of preventive notifications is to raise awareness of major risks that citizens may be exposed to. If citizens are properly informed of the risks, their consequences and measures that can be taken to protect themselves and reduce the impact when the risks do occur, they will be less vulnerable overall,” explains Delphine Arias-Buffard in a recent interview with SD magazine. This is the reason for the importance of “anticipation” to a Multi-Ministerial Crisis Unit (CIC), which addresses four key areas: situation, anticipation, decision, and communication.

Frequently, the components of each communication, their format, accuracy and timing are simply judged by the media and affected members of the public. As ever, the 2-to-3% of situations that are not (and could not) be predicted are both unpleasant and unsettling and, via a rapidly-shared emotional response, overshadow the many disasters that are met with pertinent and effective responses, rather like the gifted swimmers who watch over us as lifeguards, reassuring us to such an extent that we forget that they are there – as long as no one is drowning. Crisis management processes are always capable of improvement, but they can never achieve zero risk. Perhaps this fact should be the topic of a warning to remind the public at large…