Characteristics of Effective Communication Before and During a Wildland Fire Event: Evidence from the Hat Creek Complex Fire, 2009

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Title: Characteristics of Effective Communication Before and During a Wildland Fire Event: Evidence from the Hat Creek Complex Fire, 2009
Author: Sawyer, Christopher
Abstract: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY - Characteristics of Effective Communication Before and During a Wildland Fire Event: Evidence from the Hat Creek Complex Fire, 2009. By Chris Sawyer. Fire Management and Communication Communication is vital to public satisfaction, support, and collaborative action that can help address existing fire management challenges. To reduce the frequency and severity of large wildland fires, a more intense focus on preemptive fire management strategies (defensible space, prescribed burns, forest thinning, etc…) should be taken. Proactive and effective communication is an integral part of before and during fire activities. In previous studies, proactive communication before a fire was shown to increase knowledge and citizen support for fuels reductions which can aid alternative fire management strategies. Effective communication during a fire can affect public satisfaction with overall information provided during such events. Effective Communication Survey of the Affected Public on the Hat Creek Fires This study focused on how communication from the United States Forest Service (USFS) and local governments affected public satisfaction with the information received both before and during a wildland fire incident. Based on existing literature, effective communication characteristics were defined as the result of 1) planning, 2) message delivery, 3) integrating into the local context, and 4) building trust in the process. The hypothesis was that these four characteristics of effective communication were associated with greater levels of overall communication satisfaction before and during a wildland fire incident. During fall 2009, a Wildland Communication Survey (WCS) was administered to 1,000 people living within a 10 mile perimeter of the fires in the Hat Creek Complex (including the Brown, Sugarloaf and Butte Fires), in Northern California. Questions were asked about satisfaction with communication, planning, message delivery, integrating into the local context and trust. Results revealed the four characteristics of communication were related to overall satisfaction with communication before and during the Hat Creek Complex Fire. Analysis Satisfaction with Communication. To attain high levels of public satisfaction, communication between citizens and the agencies responsible for fire management should occur during all phases of the fire cycle. The majority of respondents from the Hat Creek indicated that they were satisfied with the overall information they received both before (60%) and during (68%) the fire. Forty percent before the fire and, 32% during the fire were not satisfied with the information they received. These results suggested that respondents were mostly satisfied with the information they received. They also indicated that more respondents were satisfied with the information they received from the USFS and local agencies during the fire compared to the information they received before the fire. Planning. Results from the survey indicated that communication from the USFS was clearly related to satisfaction both before and during the fire. Communication from local government was related to satisfaction before the fire, but not during the fire. Three explanations are possible for this finding. First, this may suggest that the local government agencies did not bear as much responsibility disseminating information during the fire; therefore the public did not rely on them. Second, local government agencies made attempts, but did not successfully disseminate information to the public during the fire. Third, the results could suggest that the Forest Service’s planning efforts prior to the fire may have helped establish more effective lines of communication during the fire than the local government. Message Delivery. Survey respondents used a variety of different information sources before and during the fire. These sources were broken down into unidirectional (TV, radio, etc...) and interactive modalities (conversations, meetings, etc...). Previous research has shown that interactive communication is a more effective way to develop support and acceptance for the selected fire management strategy. Descriptive analysis from the Hat Creek showed that respondents were using more unidirectional sources, compared to interactive sources, both before and during the fire. Respondents were however, more satisfied with overall communication when they used multiple information sources and interactive modalities that allowed them opportunities to ask questions and express concerns about the fire. Integrating into the Local Context. Effectively integrating into the local context can decrease the amount of uncertainty that the public associates with fire management and build their capacity to participate in developing and implementing solutions in the future. Three components of integrating into the local context at the Hat Creek were associated with greater levels of satisfaction before and during the fire. First, respondents that felt local resources were used well during the fire. Second, respondents who felt local knowledge and local concerns were integrated into planning before the fire. Third, respondents that felt the agencies took action to provide satisfactory answers to issues raised by the public before the fire. The results suggest that fire management officials successfully integrated into the local context of this fire. Building Trust. Building trust with the public is the culmination of effective planning, delivering information through multiple mediums, and incorporating a community’s local context into wildland fire communication strategies. Previous research indicates that public acceptance of alternative fire management strategies is associated with agency skill, credibility, and adequacy of communication efforts. The Hat Creek survey results showed that there was greater trust in unidirectional information sources rather than interactive information sources before and during the fire. Respondents were more satisfied with communication during the fire if they received credible and accurate information about the fire. The results also indicated respondents who trusted the USFS were more likely to be satisfied with communication. Sixty-nine percent of respondents trusted the USFS, while only 43% trusted local government. Lessons from the Hat Creek Fires As shown above, four characteristics of effective communication were related to overall satisfaction with information received both before and during the Hat Creek fire. More respondents were satisfied with communication efforts during the fire. Communication from the USFS was more likely to be associated with satisfaction than communication from local government. This may be because respondents trusted the USFS more than local government. Even though survey data indicated that respondents were satisfied with interactive information sources, respondents revealed that they had greater trust and were using more unidirectional information sources compared to interactive sources. Respondents were also more likely to be satisfied with communication when agencies incorporated local knowledge, local concerns, and local resources for fire both planning and response. The findings imply that the public was satisfied with communication before and during the fire. These lessons may help contribute to better communication practices and aid in more sound fire management in the future.
Publisher: North Carolina State University. College of Natural Resources
Date: 2010-10-20
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.4/4160


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