The devastating floods across many European countries in mid-July 2021 left a trail of damage and, sadly, many deaths. In Germany alone, 135 people died in Rhineland-Palatinate, 47 in North Rhine-Westphalia, and two in Bavaria: four firefighters were among the deceased. Parts of those regions were inundated with 148 litres of rain per square metre within 48 hours that usually witness about 80 litres over the whole of July. (The scenes mirrored severe floods in Boscastle in the UK in 2004.)
The damage is all the more surprising as the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) sent out specific warnings for the worst-hit German regions four days before the start of the downpour. In offering an explanation, the German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, dismissed suggestions that Federal officials had made mistakes and said warnings were passed to local authorities ‘who make decisions on disaster protection’. He claimed that he did not see any fundamental problems with the system.
Indicators and warnings
History is regrettably replete with similar stories. From major terrorist attacks to tsunamis to territorial conflicts, indicators and warnings were often discernible well in advance but a failure to act in time led to ruinous and often deadly consequences. This is frequently in spite of considerable investments in time and technologies to install early warning systems and procedures.
As the flooding in German demonstrates, it is often not the warning systems themselves that fail but rather the people who make the decisions by not acting quickly enough. This may because of a fear of the situation, paralysis in decision making, groupthink, prejudice or bias in the processing, bureaucratic inertia because of departmental silos, or too little or too much information. Another reason that frequently occurs in post-incident reporting is a lack of imagination. People in authority simply cannot grasp the enormity of the pending disaster as it is outside their normal experience or training – ‘it’s never happened before’ is the usual refrain. A ‘failure of imagination’ was one (of four reasons) clearly stated by the 9/11 Commission Report (pp339-348) and is also cited in an interview given by the designer of EFAS in an interview after the German floods last year (see personal interview here, time slot 8.30-10.30mins).
As the scale and frequency of severe disasters are likely to increase in the coming years, climate change being just one driver, then it will be important to overcome the impediments to inaction, especially that lack of imagination, and not place an over-reliance on early warning systems to solve people-centric deficits.
A valuable paper has recently been produced by two authors from the Early Warning Research Centre at University College London in response to a request from the National Preparedness Commission. The authors recommend that ‘To enhance a warning requires placing it as part of a warning system, a long-term social process' that embodies three I’s (Imagination, Initiative, Integration) and three E’s (Education, Exchange, Engagement). These six core principles help produce adaptable and effective warnings that match key four characteristics (accuracy, flexibility, timeliness and transparency), leading to effective action and saving lives.
The three recommendations made in the paper to enhance warnings in the UK are:
1. Develop effective warnings that consider multiple-hazards, cascading events, and integration across stakeholders.
2. Adopt a public engagement and outreach programme that empowers people to identify and fulfil their own needs regarding warnings for enhancing preparedness and response behaviours and actions.
3. Create and support mechanisms to overcome silos and territorialism and instead encourage idea and action exchange for building trust and connections that support action when a major situation arises.
Two case studies on the warning/alert levels during Covid-19 in the UK and New Zealand are offered in the paper. These studies demonstrate ‘the value of transparency and clarity for alert systems, the need for well-designed iconographies, and the importance of communication to help the public lead themselves for informed actions and decisions’. The need to convey clear, meaningful and deliberate actions required of recipients applies also to terrorism alert levels in the UK. (See News item.)
The authors conclude that ‘… whilst the UK has developed robust warnings, they frequently fail because people do not act or act ineffectively. The key characteristics of effective warnings need to be implemented alongside mechanisms for knowledge retention and exchange, particularly given that organisational staff often have a high turnover. … With complex, multi-hazard and/or cascading hazards and threats, warnings must engage directly with people affected, often looking to and supporting them for leadership.’
As with so much in the field of resilience, it is not necessarily good infrastructure, systems or procedures that deliver results – although they can obviously help – but rather the people in positions of authority who can and should take leadership decisions to make the real difference: they need to move their thinking up a gear and expect the unexpected.