Planning for Wildfire: Tips for creating 360-character Wireless Emergency Alert templates

By: Jessica Doermann, Erica Kuligowski

Topic: Preparedness Wildfire WUI codes & ordinances

Type: Best Practices Tools / Resources

As the number of wildfires continues to decrease or hold steady from year to year, their average size and intensity has grown exponentially. Populations living and working within the wildland-urban interface (WUI) are at a heightened risk of exposure to wildfires, and in turn, may be instructed to evacuate in future fires to avoid injury or death. Planning documents (e.g., communication plans) are an opportunity for communities to outline their procedures for if, and when, a wildfire emergency occurs.

Communication with affected populations during a wildfire emergency is vital for ensuring their awareness of the situation and the actions they should take to protect themselves from harm. One mode of communication for authorities to provide information to at-risk populations is Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) sent via the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS).

WEA and IPAWS logos, courtesy of authors.

Originally created in 2012, WEAs are a way for authorities to communicate with people regarding national emergencies, AMBER alerts, public safety alerts, and extreme weather/other threatening emergencies. These messages are unique in that they are geo-targeted and delivered using a technology separate from SMS text messages—meaning they can be sent directly to affected populations and are unaffected by network congestion. WEA messages, accompanied by a unique tone and vibration, are sent to WEA-capable cellular devices without the need to subscribe to a system or download an app.

The goal of short message alerts is to prompt a behavioral response and usually, the goal of sending a WEA during a wildfire emergency is to prompt those receiving it to evacuate areas at risk. WEA messages have character limits, where every letter, space, and punctuation mark counts as a character; making the development of these messages challenging. Legacy WEA messages were limited to 90-characters and are still supported on 3G (and older) mobile devices. As of December 2019, 4G LTE (and newer) devices support up to 360-character WEA messages; allowing authorities an extra 270-characters to use in their messages and prompting the need for 360-character WEA templates.

Choosing the information that will be included in WEAs is ultimately left up to the authority sending the message. Messages are typically created from scratch (i.e., as the wildfire is occurring) or from templates that are prepared ahead of time and only require select information to be filled-in (e.g., date). Inclusion of WEA templates in planning documents allows communities the opportunity to design their messages before the occurrence of a wildfire and ensure communication strategies are discussed as part of their procedures.

Researchers have studied how the public responds to short message alerts, including WEAs. Links between short message alerts and public compliance/response are based on factors such as word choice and message structure. From this research, a literature review and guidance have been created to assist those generating short message alerts [1],[2].

Following these basic tips can help you create short message templates for evacuation during wildfire emergencies that are impactful and effective [3]:

Tip #1: Include specific content in a set order

Short message alerts should contain information about five topics that should appear in the message in the following order:

  • Source (i.e., identify which entity is sending the message)
  • Hazard Identification (i.e., identify that a wildfire is happening and name potential impacts/ consequences of the wildfire)
  • Location (i.e., identify the location of the wildfire, the direction in which it is moving, and the geographical area of people who are affected by the fire and should evacuate)
  • Event Timeline (i.e., identify when the people receiving the message should evacuate)
  • Guidance (i.e., inform people of what actions they should take to protect themselves, e.g., to evacuate)

Tip #2: Avoid unclear statements, acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon

These types of words and phrases have the potential to be interpreted differently and cause confusion. Especially for visitors, utilizing ‘local language’ could make messages difficult to understand. Always spell out acronyms and abbreviations; utilize well-known names of towns, cities, counties, and/or major landmarks for location identification; and review messages for phrases that could have multiple meanings.

Tip #3: Use simple and familiar language

Messages should be written using words that are understood by most people. Keeping word or phrase complexity below a high-school reading level is recommended.

Tip #4: Accurately depict severity, urgency, and certainty

Messages containing niceties such as “please” or “thank you” may be viewed as less serious. Noncommittal words like “might” also have the potential to weaken the message. Words and phrases that convey the severity, urgency, and certainty of the wildfire emergency are important in helping the message receiver view the event as a threat. Try using words like “immediate”, “urgent”, “will”, “now”, or “critical” in your message.

Tip #5: Use CAPITAL LETTERS to increase attention

Capital letters can draw the message receiver’s attention to certain words and phrases within the message and help emphasize their importance. It is not recommended to write the entire message in capital letters since the prominence of the most important words and phrases might be lost.

Tip #6: Make the message personal

Message receivers in affected areas automatically receive WEA messages (unless they opt-out), and in turn, might be confused of a message’s relevance when receiving one. Accurately portraying that the message applies to the receiver (i.e., placing the reader inside the area of risk), including personal consequences of the wildfire if he/she doesn’t act, and using other emotive language can help make the message more personal.

Based on the tips above, try some of these basic swaps in your messages:

WEA examples table

Because templates cannot be made for every situation, some information might need to be left blank in the planning documents and filled in before the message is sent. For example:

_____________Police Department: WILDFIRE EMERGENCY located_____________moving toward_____________. Wildfires can cause injury/death, burn down homes/other structures. If you are receiving this message EVACUATE NOW. Do not delay to pack belongings. Check_____________for updates.

This template is 228 characters, including letters, punctuation, and spaces, leaving 132 characters to fill in the missing information.

Creating templates and including them in planning documents can help to ensure the creation of informative and effective short messages alerts that require minimal additions before their distribution.

To learn more about WEA and IPAWS, please visit https://www.fema.gov/integrated-public-alert-warning-system.


Footnotes:

[1] Sutton, Jeannette, and Erica D. Kuligowski. “Alerts and warnings on short messaging channels: guidance from an expert panel process.” Natural Hazards Review 20.2 (2019): 04019002

[2] Kuligowski, Erica D., and Jessica Doermann. A review of public response to short message alerts under imminent threat. Technical Note 1982, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD (2018).

[3] Recommendations are based on the creation of 360c. messages.

Authors:

Jessica Doermann: Graduate Fire Engineer, Arup, New York, NY; Jessica.Doermann@arup.com

Erica Kuligowski: Sociologist and Fire Protection Engineer, Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Group, Engineering Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD; ericakuligowski@gmail.com

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One thought on “Planning for Wildfire: Tips for creating 360-character Wireless Emergency Alert templates”

  1. Suzanne Ferroggiaro says:

    Thank you; all excellent suggestions.

    Maybe also add proofreading at the end to make sure you said what you thought you were going to say. Thanks for your work!

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