Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Creating an Early Warning System

Discover Top Level Takeaways from the Zambia Workshop with our Blog on Applied Learning from the UNDP Last Mile Conference in Zambia

A Simple Step-By-Step Guide

By Bonizella Biagini
Sharing early warnings of fast-moving, rapidly evolving weather phenomena that threaten lives, crops, livestock and infrastructure should be easy… but it’s not. Poor observational data, poor communications, technical limitations, infrastructure limitations, illiteracy, multiple languages, lack of trust, rolling blackouts and myriad other factors make it really, really hard to do – and do well – especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This simple guide taken from the UNDP’s Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Communications Toolkit provides an easy step-by-step process to build an early warning system from the ground up.

According the the WMO, “The primary objective of a warning system is to empower individuals and communities to respond timely and appropriately to the hazards in order to reduce the risk of death, injury, property loss and damage. Warnings need to get the message across and stimulate those at risk to take action.”

In order to do this, one needs to collect and analyze data, package and distribute early warnings, build appropriate processes and response matrixes to allow fast delivery, and share relevant information with stakeholders and actors to ensure people know what do to when bad weather threatens.

Step 1 – Understand the Needs of Your End User
The most important element of creating an early warning system is remembering your audience. Only by knowing and listening to your target market can you effectively share messages with them. We will examine end-user needs and specific messages and advocacy vehicles in a follow-up blog. As you go about designing a solution, it’s important to think about the design process, and re-inject your end-user in every step.   

Step 2  – Collecting and Analyzing Data
“The prerequisite to effective warnings and response is timely, accurate forecasts and ‘nowcasts’ (a forecast for the very near term, generally zero to six hours). These forecasts generally are based on four components: Observational Data and Monitoring Systems; Numerical Weather Prediction; Conceptual Models; and Situational Awareness,” according to the WMO.

Nowcasting messages are generally associated with severe thunderstorm warnings that include heavy rain, large hail, damaging winds and the potential of flash floods. Depending on the communication strategy, the message content can range from a few characters (i.e. twitter or sms) to a more substantial narrative sent via email. Bear in mind that severe thunderstorms in convective environments can develop within 15 to 30 minutes and move at speeds of up to 100 km/hr. It is therefore necessary to convey as much information as possible in a short concise message to a well-defined target audience, those in the immediate path of the storm.

For National Hydro-Meteorological Services (NHMS), the WMO identifies the essential information that should be delivered by the NHMS to support risk identification, reduction and transfer in a functioning early warning system.  
  • Risk identification. Systematic observation and monitoring of hydrometeorological parameters; provision of quality-assured archived and real-time data; hazard analysis and mapping; as well as forecasts of hazards and their changing patterns.
  • Risk reduction. Provision of hazard forecasts and early warnings to support emergency preparedness and response; climate data and forecasts (probabilistic information on hazards and their changing patterns) to support medium and long-term sectoral planning.  
  • Risk transfer. Provision of historical and real-time hazard data and analysis to support catastrophe insurance, bonds and weather-indexed risk transfer mechanisms.

Resources on Collecting and Analyzing Data

Step 3 – Defining Roles
You have good data and good analysis. Now it’s time to share it. In order to avoid disputes over roles and responsibilities, foster buy-in, and build a standard operating protocol for the issuance of early warning messages, you’ll need to assign roles, foster a culture of collaboration and develop non-territorial approaches. Like almost any initiative, the assignment and distribution of roles and responsibilities should begin from the ground up. This will ensure buy-in from all stakeholders. Because every country has its unique political framework, there are no off-the-shelf solutions. However, focusing on a few key areas will help in the definition of roles and responsibilities.

If you look at the roles from the bottom up, you might generalize them in the following way (as adapted from the FEMA roles and responsibilities matrix):

  • Local. Local leaders and emergency managers prepare communities to manage incidents locally.
    • Elected Officials ensure the safety and welfare of the people under their jurisdiction.
    • Emergency Manager. The local emergency manager has the day-to-day authority and responsibility for overseeing emergency management programs and activities.
    • Department and agency heads. Coordinate local services.
    • Individuals and communities. Reduce hazards, prepare for emergencies, monitor emergency communications.
  • States, Territories, Autonomous/Tribal Governments. Support local efforts. They may be charged with regional emergency response, or this responsibility may lay at the local or national level.
    • Governor and elected officials. Communicate with local groups, national groups and affected communities.
    • State Emergency Agency. This may not be applicable in all situations.
  • Federal. In most African nations, emergency alerts will be initiated on the federal level.
    • President. Overall oversight.
    • Ministries. Individual ministries may be responsible for sectorial response and alerts (i.e. hydrology, agriculture, energy, national security, communications)
    • NHMS. Monitor weather and issue alerts (or alert relevant disaster management agency)
    • Disaster Management Unit. Not all countries have a dedicated unit. This revolving point can be used to coordinate warnings.
  • International. On the international level, either the President or Minister of Foreign Affairs would be responsible for international coordination. However, weather alerts should be shared with NHMS in neighboring countries to trigger their own response.
  • Private Sector. The private sector is often responsible for large pieces of infrastructure. In the case of the issuance of early warnings, private telecoms and media companies can also aid in the distribution of warnings.
  • NGOs and First Responders. This group of actors can mobilize supplies, share emergency information and provide response. They can also be mobilized to provide training on what to do in the event of a warning, and as broadcasters for information on required actions in the event of an emergency.

Step 4 – The cycle of Preparedness
The United States has a quick acting early alert system that works across agencies to bring weather alerts to citizens in the blink of an eye. On average, the US does 76 billion observations a year, making 1.5 million forecasts and 50,000 warnings. Here’s how it works.

How does it work? Integrated warning teams, including the National Weather Service (NWS), local media and local emergency managers create and practice year-around a common communication protocol to the public. Trust is obviously key here.

FEMA cycle of preparedness.
Continued public education means most US citizens know “Turn Around Don’t Drown” applies in the event of flooded roads; “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors”, that is, seek shelter from lightning, and go to hardened shelters or basements for tornadoes.

In a hazardous weather event, the NWS then issues warning polygons by geographic area; these enclose regions likely to be impacted by the weather event in specified times. Once these are issued, the collaborative team creates notifications via text, radio, television through an emergency alert system.

A successful forecast and quick action saves lives. It also means the cycle of trust can continue.

Step 5 – Create a Response Matrix
You are starting to align roles and responsibilities, now it’s time to clearly define the response matrix. Creating a response matrix for early warning issuance will depend on the roles and responsibilities of individual organizations.

Most countries choose to customize their alert levels. A simple yellow, orange, red system is used by the Irish Meteorological Service (Irish Early Warning System). Simple, easy to understand, actionable.
Yellow - Weather Alert - Be Aware

The concept behind YELLOW level weather alerts is to notify those who are at risk because of their location and/or activity, and to allow them to take preventative action. It is implicit that YELLOW level weather alerts are for weather conditions that do not pose an immediate threat to the general population, but only to those exposed to risk by nature of their location and/or activity.
Orange - Weather Warning - Be Prepared

This category of ORANGE level weather warnings is for weather conditions which have the capacity to impact significantly on people in the affected areas. The issue of an Orange level weather warning implies that all recipients in the affected areas should prepare themselves in an appropriate way for the anticipated conditions.
Red - Severe Weather Warning - Take Action

The issue of RED level severe weather warnings should be a comparatively rare event and implies that recipients take action to protect themselves and/or their properties; this could be by moving their families out of the danger zone temporarily; by staying indoors; or by other specific actions aimed at mitigating the effects of the weather conditions. This level of warning assumes a high confidence of the event occurring. Any false warnings could lead to unnecessary panic and loss of credibility.

Step 6 – Package Your Alert
You’ve gone through your response matrix. It’s go time. You need to issue an early warning. Packaging that information is just as important as the information itself. 

  • Universal symbols. In places with high levels of illiteracy, you should consider the use of universal symbols. The message could be as simple as this: Macintosh HD:Users:greg:Desktop:OneDrive:UNDP:Design:2012_ocha_humanitarian_icon_png_0:disaster_flash_flood_20px_bluebox.pngMacintosh HD:Users:greg:Desktop:OneDrive:UNDP:Design:2012_ocha_humanitarian_icon_png_0:infrastructure_distribution_site_20px_bluebox.pngMacintosh HD:Users:greg:Desktop:OneDrive:UNDP:Design:2012_ocha_humanitarian_icon_png_0:infrastructure_community_building_20px_bluebox.png (flash flood, food will be distributed at the community house) or Macintosh HD:Users:greg:Desktop:OneDrive:UNDP:Design:2012_ocha_humanitarian_icon_png_0:disaster_cyclone_20px_bluebox.pngMacintosh HD:Users:greg:Desktop:OneDrive:UNDP:Design:2012_ocha_humanitarian_icon_png_0:infrastructure_house_20px_bluebox.png (warning cyclone, seek shelter).
  • Sample of an early alert
    Text should be simple and indicative of the danger, the area, the action and where to get more information or receive support.
  • You will need to package per media. Radio requires audio reports, broadcast requires either text or video reports, SMS requires text.
  • Make sure the response action is clear. You’ve already practiced this in the simulations. Now it’s time to act. This is not a drill. There is a flash flood in your area. Move to higher ground immediately.
  • Questions to ask yourself: Does the alert dissemination plan work with and without electric power? Is the dissemination/communication technology sustainable? Are you building a dissemination strategy that will work long-term, say for a decade or more? Are you disseminating information to people inside buildings or outside? Different communication means may be needed to disseminate the message to these two groups. Especially important in urban areas. What are the restrictions on each dissemination mechanism?

Step 7 – Issue an alert
There’s a fast-acting storm in the Banebe province. You are ready to issue a red weather alert to people living in the storm’s path. Early warnings should be multi-lingual and work across various platforms. They should include information on what to do when bad weather hits. Here’s some tips.

  • Keep the language very simple.
  • Create brand and message local ambassadors. Make sure village leaders, regional leaders have early warnings and can activate local response and further distribution of messages.
  • Maintain constant contact.
  • Create threat levels and types of alerts. For instance, yellow, orange and red (as is the case in Ireland).
  • Integrate hazardous weather alerting with other threat alerting systems (i.e. earthquake, tsunami, and health alerts).
  • Create a community response plan (i.e. training, simulation, awareness building).
  • Conduct regular drills to practice this process, end-to-end.

Once an event is past, go back to step one, re-connecting with end-users to see if the information was effective, how they used it, and how it can be improved.

In its simplest form, this is how warnings are issued.
The WMO Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) “is an international standard format for emergency alerting and public warning. It is designed for all-hazards, related to weather events, earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes, public health, power outages, and many other emergencies. CAP is also designed for all-media, including communications media ranging from sirens to cell phones, faxes, radio, television, and various digital communication networks based on the Internet.”

Step 8 – Share the Alert
The alert will be shared through your standard operating procedure. Because you’ve assigned roles and responsibilities all the parties and institutions in the information chain know what they need to do. The media is a key player in this information chain. Cell companies, radio and television broadcasters, social media and other media are invaluable actors in this information chain. We include more details on working with media and creating a broadcast early alert system in a follow up blog.

Step 9 – Test, Refine, Replicate, Respond
The US’s cycle of response indicates that all those responsible for some element of the alerting process for severe weather should gain and maintain situational awareness, activate, deploy and coordinate response, then demobilize resources in an emergency. You will need to test and update your system, refine your approach, improve monitoring, replicate best practices, build trust, and respond to needs from relevant stakeholders in the information chain.


Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Communications Toolkit 
The Communications Toolkit includes easy-to-navigate templates and strategies to issue early weather alerts, create response mechanisms and assign responsibilities in the early-warnings information chain, and create the supportive advocacy strategies necessary to build the enabling political environments necessary to continue with these important endeavors.  

No comments:

Post a Comment