Improving planning and preparation for emergencies

Posted on: 28 June 2023 by Dr Sara Waring in June 2023 posts

Flood sign in front of a flooded road, fire engine in the background

Dr Sara Waring is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. She has been working with law enforcement, emergency services, government bodies, and charities for over 15 years, examining decision making, information sharing, and team work in risky and uncertain environments. Here she discusses the important role that members of the public can play in shaping approaches used by emergency planners to warn and inform local communities.

The emergency context

Both in the UK and internationally, the scale and severity of emergencies is growing as the effects of global warming are felt, including increased flooding, wildfires, heatwaves and droughts. As members of the public, we have an important role to play in planning for, responding to, and recovering from extreme events such as these. However, our ability to play a role is affected by how effectively emergency planners communicate with us.

Emergency planners have a responsibility to share information with communities about local risks and strategies for managing this. Information needs to be readily available and easy to understand so that we can use it to anticipate emergencies and take appropriate protective measures. Most emergencies occur without warning, and so providing information in advance can help us to learn to cope with uncertainty and support us to be proactive in reducing risks, damage, vulnerability, and time taken to recover.

In reality, emergency planners can be reluctant to share risk information with communities to avoid mass panic. Emergency planners often don’t consult with us to understand our preferences and concerns, despite it being useful for improving awareness and understanding of community needs. This failure to consult with communities can increase mistrust in authorities and affect willingness to follow advice and instructions (e.g. following instructions to evacuate).

Our research

Over the past few years, I have been working with Merseyside Resilience Forum (MRF) to improve public involvement in shaping approaches used to warn and inform communities about local risks. MRF is a multi-agency partnership made up of representatives from police, fire and rescue, ambulance, NHS, local authorities, and other agencies responsible for planning and preparing for local emergencies to mitigate their impact on local communities.

For phase one of the project, I led a study that explored public perceptions of emergency preparedness and preferences for communicating information about local risks in Merseyside. In 2020, we conducted interviews with Merseyside residents. Interview questions were developed in consultation with MRF to ensure the focus was relevant. However, we also asked Merseyside residents for their views on what problems relating to emergency preparedness should be explored further. Feedback highlighted the need for a flexible approach to communicating risk information, using multiple methods to ensure that it would be accessible to all. Feedback also highlighted the importance of consulting with a diverse range of residents to ensure representation.

For phase two, we used the interview responses to develop a questionnaire that can be distributed across Merseyside to gain more inclusive feedback. The questionnaire focuses on needs, concerns, and preferences for communicating risk information, along with identifying factors that affect willingness to act on information to prepare for emergencies. MRF partners are involved in advertising this questionnaire to reach a wider range of participants from across the Merseyside region.

Working in partnership

Our collaboration with MRF has been important for identifying a practical problem in need of research and informing the approach used to recruit participants. However, having an initial phase where we sought public views to shape the research focus has been vital to ensure the data being captured is relevant to understanding how emergency planners can improve communication of risk information.

As part of this research, we have also involved Masters students, providing training on interviewing, analysis, and public involvement. In addition, these students have had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of working in partnership with external agencies to produce research that will inform practice.

The findings of this project will be used by MRF to inform strategies for warning and informing the public about emergencies. Views shared by Merseyside residents will help to shape how local risk information is communicated in their communities.