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In Emergencies, Who Should Be Warned To Do What, When?


Tom Cova is a geology professor at the University of Utah and director of the center for natural and technological hazards. He is part of a group of experts studying public warnings for hurricanes, wildfires or toxic chemical spills.

Cova said when it comes to public warnings, there’s really no current standard.

“No, it’s really crazy. You’d be shocked. Even within the same county, different agencies can have completely different thresholds," Cova said.

According to Cova, modern technology has changed the way the public is warned in an emergency. Think amber alerts. Those are sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts program to millions of cell phone users in cases of missing or abducted children.

But Cova said technology doesn’t answer the harder question of who should be warned. And she's is trying to answer the question of who should be warned to do what, when.

“We’re sort of making the problem easier than it really is in the real world. Because that’s the question that emergency managers have to deal with every day when they’re trying to figure out who should take action in a wildfire or in a chemical spill or in a hurricane," Cova said.

Cova and his colleagues have published a paper called Warning triggers in environmental hazards: Who should be warned to do what and when.