A Downpour on Literacy and Emergency Alerts
Posted by Jennifer Vecchiarelli on October 17, 2018 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryMember Tips

Below is a frequently asked question about wireless emergency alerts on the FEMA website:

Why are Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) important to me?
Alerts received at the right time can help keep you safe during an emergency. With WEA, warnings can be sent to your mobile device when you may be in harm's way, without the need to download an app or subscribe to a service.

Today, most people rely on their cell phones as their main source of social interaction, news, entertainment, shopping, research, and even weather and emergency announcements. Crisis announcements and dangerous weather warnings do not just slide across the bottom of a television screen or sound across radio airwaves anymore. They are more frequently sent as text messages to phones and displayed in newsfeeds across various social media platforms. Emergency managers have to rely on technology like text messaging, emails, website posts, and social media to reach members of their communities to keep them safe.

Although emergency announcements are efficiently being plastered across our devices in all of the ways we can possibly see them, there is a missing factor: readability. Read the weather announcement below. At what reading level would you guess it was written? 

"While Harvey's winds have begun to weaken, life-threatening hazards will continue. ... Catastrophic and life-threatening flooding is expected to increasingly develop across the middle and upper Texas coast. ... Please heed the advice of local officials and do not drive into flooded roadways."

If you said college, you’re right. 

With over 36 million adults living in the United States who read at a third-grade reading level or lower, how can they be expected to react appropriately in a written crisis that they may not be able to comprehend? They simply can’t. Studies have shown that a large portion of these adults swipe the text notification away, scroll past the announcement on social media, or delete the email because they cannot read the puzzling display of overzealous, college-level words.

Complicated sentences and advanced vocabulary about the flooding from Hurricane “X” do not do any good for adults who cannot read or understand high-level words. A complex sentence about the local tornado warning and need to take shelter really isn’t going to help someone who swiped the warning away.

The Literacy Gap of Digital Emergency Announcements

Thomas Phelan, a researcher and professor of communication at Hamilton College, noticed a literacy gap between the abundance of text-based emergency notifications and the people for whom the messages were intended. His research focused on emergency management and risk communication.

Phelan’s research began in 2008, when he reviewed 40 emergency management agency websites and tested the readability level of the first paragraph on each. He used the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula, which evaluates the reading level of a passage by measuring ease of reading and grade level.

Phelan discovered that most messages sent by emergency managers were at a college reading level. But there are ways to help improve readability, one of which is to focus on word use. For example, the word “leave” is much simpler than the word “evacuate.”

Digital literacy plays a significant role here, too. People need to know how to access the emergency response website for their county. They need to know how to use their mobile devices. Swiping away the alerts is a go-to response for people who don’t understand the severity of the disaster, Phelan explained. A person may want to take a screenshot of emergency information to ask someone what it says, but he or she may not know how. 

How to Help Adult Learners Stay Informed During a Crisis

So what can we do to help those with low literacy stay informed, and safe, during an emergency or crisis?

1. Advocacy
While they have made some strides to improve the readability of publically texted and shared alerts, emergency managers should continue to develop simplified announcements. What you can do is advocate for improved readability to help individuals better prepare in a timely manner during an emergency. Advocate for the health and safety of individuals who struggle with low literacy and their families. 

2. Accessibility Training
Emergency managers believe that their written alerts are accessible. “Accessibility aids literacy,” said Phelan. Simple instruction on how to utilize a smartphone or computer can go a long way for adults with low literacy who may need help interpreting emergency announcements. Instruct learners about how to take a screenshot of these text and social media alerts, or how to bookmark and save a website on their computer so that they don’t have to struggle with spelling out and finding the website in their search. Or better yet, use various weather announcements in their reading and writing practice. 

3. Preparation
Help learners find out who they need to get in contact with to find out about school delays and closings for their children. If you’re a tutor or instructor, or even a friend, you can help by working with learners to develop a list of contacts who will be able to guide them during an emergency, weather announcement, evacuation, etc. 

This issue is important and can impact lives. By advocating for improved readability, helping improve adult learners’ digital literacy, and by assisting with emergency preparation for those adults, you can make their lives easier and safer. It can change, and save, a life. 


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