When Emergency Alerts Are Written At A College Reading Level, Who Gets Left Behind?

by Ashley Hennefer

October 7, 2015

Back in October 2015, New Yorkers with smartphones were jolted by a collective ping, accompanied by a text message from the National Weather Service warning that the high winds of Hurricane Joaquin were imminent. Though Joaquin eventually veered off to Bermuda as a tropical storm, high surf and historic levels of tidal flooding devastated the Carolinas. And many of the alerts were written in complicated sentences using advanced vocabulary.

Nearly two years later, the 2017 messages sent out by the NOAA for Hurricane Harvey hadn’t much improved. A quick excerpt:

"While Harvey's winds have begun to weaken, life-threatening hazards will continue. ... Catastrophic and life-threatening flooding is expected across the middle and upper Texas coast. ... Please heed the advice of local officials and do not drive into flooded roadways."

But fast-forward to early 2018, with missile warnings in Hawaii and tsunami warnings across the U.S. coasts, and the alerts have clear language: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Except there’s still a problem: Those alerts were false alarms.

Though every community faces a different natural threat — wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and more — all emergency managers (those who coordinate responses to disasters) have the same goal. They aim to contact and prepare as many people as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible, since there’s never much time to act when a natural disaster strikes.

The aftermath of the flooding in North Charleston, South Carolina, caused by over 15 inches of rainfall resulting from Hurricane Joaquin. Photo by Ryan Johnson/North Charleston/Flickr.

The false alarm in Hawaii, for instance, prompted people to act quickly, scrambling for their lives in the 40 minutes before the missile alert was rescinded.

Not so long ago, emergency managers could rely on audible warnings — the kind that break into broadcast news on radio and television, alerting the public about imminent danger. But now, people just aren’t tuning into traditional media the way they used to. So to do their jobs, emergency managers must rely on technology like text messaging, emails, website posts, and social media to reach members of their community during a crisis.

Overall, such options seem to have improved safety. Most smartphones are automatically enrolled in alert systems that notify users via text or email if an environmental threat is imminent. And most alerts can be turned off, except for a high-level “presidential message” that can’t be blocked. Yet such strategies often make major assumptions about the literacy levels of the communities they serve, which means the people receiving these messages may not be able to take action to get to safety.

As a researcher and professor of communication at Hamilton College, Thomas Phelan noticed a literacy gap between the abundance of text-based emergency notifications and the people for whom the messages were intended. His research focused on emergency management and risk communication, and he wrote frequently on the topic.

Phelan passed away in January 2017. But until his death, Phelan also taught emergency managers at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.

“[I’m concerned with] the gap and readability levels of the attended warnings so that emergency managers can respond and prepare, and save lives and property,” Phelan told GOOD in 2015.

Although emergency management strategy is largely text-based, Phelan’s literacy research in this discipline was relatively new, and he was one of few researchers looking critically at the way populations are being informed about emergencies. This area of study is multifaceted — medical professionals have been researching literacy gaps in medical materials for patients. And Phelan cited researchers like J.M. Novak and P. Biskup, who found a similar discrepancy in the way the public was being notified about food-borne illnesses.

The literacy Phelan referred to is threefold: readability, numeracy, and computer-based problem-solving. In 2008, one of his first studies on this particular issue focused on readability.

“I started with a review of 40 websites of emergency management agencies, and I did a readability level on the entry paragraphs of that website because that’s what I figured [people] would see first,” he said. “If they couldn’t read the first page, they wouldn’t go past that.”

Phelan used the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which evaluates the reading level of a passage. The test consists of two parts: the Flesch, which measures ease of reading, and the Flesch-Kincaid, which measures grade level.

This tool is built into software like Microsoft Office. Using this, Phelan discovered that most messages sent by emergency managers were at a college reading level. But there are ways to help improve readability, one of which is to focus on word use. Phelan said this can mean the difference between “evacuate” and “leave.”

The false alarms of 2018 may have inspired swift action in part because of their word choices. Western coastal residents received a tsunami warning with readable action words: “Go to high ground or move inland.” As a result, residents acted quickly, staying in evacuation centers until it became clear that no tsunami waves were coming.       

Numeracy plays a role, as numbers are frequently used to quantify the severity of weather warnings. For instance, the National Hurricane Center visualizes storm patterns and wind speed, but a person can only discern the data by understanding the numbers displayed on the map. Interpreting a storm map bridges numeracy and computer-based problem-solving.

New language to capture degrees of severity, like January 2018’s “bomb cyclone” and the recent splitting of the polar vortex, have grabbed the attention of social media users. This language can feel more tangible than number systems and command attention more easily in this age of digital communication.

But computer literacy, too, requires that a person has the ability and know-how to access the emergency response website for their county. It also includes how people use their mobile devices. Swiping away the alerts is a go-to response for people who don’t understand the severity of the disaster, Phelan explained. He also reported that a person who doesn’t know how to take a screenshot will lose the vital information they’re receiving when they swipe it away. It’s also important to consider the needs of people who speak English as a second language.

In the aftermath of recent false alarms, most conversations have focused on refining emergency alert systems for more accuracy. As we discuss the lessons learned from these mistakes, Phelan would urge us to also consider how readability played a role — and to incorporate those literacy lessons as we improve emergency alert systems.

One option might be to teach crisis communication starting in elementary school. Another is to change the way emergency managers write for a greater audience, like implementing strategies increasingly used in digital publishing. Phelan said that many emergency managers assume their written materials are accessible. To demonstrate this for them, Phelan calculated the readability of passages on their district websites during his teaching sessions.

Phelan was adamant that making emergency response messaging more clear is not about “dumbing it down” — which is a common criticism for making information more accessible. Accessibility aids literacy, he said. “When you lower a reading level so people can read it, you’re increasing their learning.”