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Risk Communication for Large Scale Emergency Readiness (LaSER): Highlights of Preliminary Findings

Author: Alison Kling and Rae Zimmerman

Every day we make hundreds of decisions that affect the risks we face in our lives. Most of these decisions and actions are so small that we don’t even think about them, and many of the risks we face, such as health risks, are so long-term and incremental that they are hard to keep at the forefront of our thinking. However, occasions will arise when risk looms large and fast, and when decisions must be made quickly, balancing risks with the knowledge we have at the moment. In every natural disaster, every emergency, every terrorist attack, good information can be the biggest lifesaver of all. 

Of course, information alone is not sufficient. It needs to be given to the right people, by the right people, and in the most effective way. This is where risk communication, if well done, can make a difference. Risk communication is framed by social contexts and networks, prior experiences, knowledge and beliefs, and many other individual and cultural factors. In recent disasters we have seen how poor risk communication has led to needless death and injury. On September 11, 2001, a police helicopter hovering over the towers saw that the buildings were going to fall—yet this information was never received by the firefighters in that building. Had they known and evacuated, far fewer of them would have died in the collapse (Dwyer, Flynn, and Fessenden, 2002). In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, local government officials had no way to let the outside world know the extent of the damage, because their telecommunications system had stopped working (Tierney, 2005). When a few seismologists became aware of an imminent threat of a tsunami in southeast Asia in December 2004, there was no one to warn because the contact information was out of date (Corder, 2004). These are just a few examples of where good risk communication could have saved countless lives.   

The above examples could be construed as risk communication being about making sure the phones work. However, the NYU Large Scale Emergency Readiness study recognizes that risk communication is an extremely complicated field. Risk communication involves a message, a messenger, a recipient, stress, emotion, technological ability, different social settings, and trust. Changing any one of these things could mean the difference between a message understood and followed and a message ignored or contradicted. 

Date Created: January 2006; Date Posted: January 2007





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