Karl Hagel and Pat McChesney, field engineers with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team at the University of Washington, install earthquake monitoring equipment on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Hood in the distance. (Marc Biundo/University of Washington via USGS)

PERSPECTIVE: Transparency About the Hazards Helps the Public Better Prepare

In civil disaster preparedness, the goal is to get the public to heed warnings and take related action to mitigate the impact of an impending disaster. This includes unusual but potential real-world disasters, which can be caused by volcanic eruptions. For the public to best follow emergency preparedness instructions, it would be helpful if they fully understand the magnitude of the overall threat.

To get the best outcome from the public one has to first keep the public informed. A look at the literature that focuses on society and education demonstrates that the current generation is progressively better-educated than those who came previous, and this is expected to continue. Because of this, accuracy and clarity explaining real-world events may be the best policy. This includes explaining what volcanoes produce, and how that produced substance is more of a serious risk than the public may think.

In the United States, the danger of volcanoes has been spoken about in government literature since the 1920s. Currently, there are more than 160 potentially active volcanoes in the U.S. alone, with a significant amount of ongoing worldwide volcanic activity. Yet while the science of studying volcanoes has been well-developed in the past few decades, some preparedness authorities as well as the media often continue to mistakenly discuss what “volcanic ash” is.

While it’s true that volcanoes can blast hazardous material tens of thousands of feet in the air, none of the debris coming from the volcano is smoke. What many call “ash” is not ash at all. Ashes are solid particulates; they are non-aqueous, non-gaseous residues that remain after something burns. However, in a volcanic eruption, nothing burns; there is no fire.

Volcanos erupt for several reasons; however, a key reason is that the magma (internal liquified molten rock) has dissolved gasses such as water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide in it. These gases can build up until they explode violently, forcefully expelling magma (now called lava), and debris known as tephra. Tephra can range in size from extremely miniscule particles to boulders the size of a home – it is fragmental internal material expelled by the eruption regardless of composition or particulate size.

The oft-erroneously labeled “ash cloud” of iconic billowing tephra pushed upward by volcanic gases is not any burned material and/or ash debris but is actually a giant cloud of essentially glass shards. Further, debris of various sizes often accompany some eruptions; for example, pumice stones that may rain down on a locality are also technically glass, not stone.

Such volcanic shards are created from fragments of molten magma that rapidly has cooled off and hardened during the eruption – without undergoing mineral crystallization. These glass shards develop from the remnants of miniscule gas bubbles that were vented, often moving as fast as a bullet. Because of their extremely small particulate size and extremely hard, non-dissolving composition, tephra is a significant biological inhalation health hazard, and a hazard to machinery.

Still, on occasion, we continue to see federal, state and local government preparedness agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), distribute information mentioning volcanoes as pushing out “ash clouds” and “dust” in their preparedness literature. One U.S. government website says, “Ash is rock that has been pulverized into dust.” Another site says, “Volcanoes are built up by an accumulation of their own eruptive products … ash flows, airborne ash, and dust.” Lay persons whom this author has questioned literally thought volcanoes expelled large amounts of dust – the type of common (non-harmful) dust they would find in their home.

For the public to best follow emergency preparedness instructions, they need to understand the magnitude of the threat they face. Modern governments that strive toward greater transparency should also strive for increased accuracy in communication. FEMA itself reminds us that “finely tuned communication skills are … important tools during the emergency planning phase when educating the public about preparedness.” Accurately describing to the public what the facts and conditions are may lead the public to appreciate the magnitude of the situation, and may lead them to better prepare for it.

Emergency preparedness officials would be helped if the news media aimed to use increasingly more accurate terms for scientific conditions and minimize discussing this type of event using inexact or sensationalistic terms such as “fire,” “fiery,” “burning,” and the commonly used “ash.” The use of erroneous words like this may mislead the public to minimize a volcanic event, as it “only causes ashes” – such as the soft, gray, benign ash associated with wood burning.

The modern citizenry expects accuracy in media and government reporting and increasingly honest details relating to the gravity of a serious situation. Moreover, trivializing critical information by the government has the potential to lead to an outcome where the public loses trust in the government. Studies have shown that a relationship built on trust between the public and the government can significantly impact the efficaciousness of the government to respond and recover from a disaster. When citizens trust the government, the government can be more effective than when the citizens are disdainful of the government.

As emergency managers within the preparedness community, we should always utilize accurate language to demonstrate to the public the significance of the threat of any disaster they may face. Yes, simplifying language may help communicate the gravity of a situation to a greater portion to the populous – however, that needs to be done with consideration to the overall message. The deliberate oversimplification of critical topics, such as volcanic threats, may lead to the diminishment of critical thought and, by extension, may lead to diminished preparedness activities.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Shelomo Alfassa is Director of Communications and a homeland security analyst for VIRSIG, LLC. He has worked in Public Safety for 25 years and has served with FEMA on several deployments as Deputy Commander of a national CBRN team (G8 Summit, the Atlanta Olympics, etc.). He serves on the “Electronic/Security Systems” sub-committee of ASTM International's Committee E54 on Homeland Security Applications and a vetted member of the FBI InfraGard program " He is a certified Facilities Security Officer (FSO) trained by the US Department of Homeland Security. Alfassa has been a speaker at events such as the N.Y. State Emergency Managers Conference; ISC-EAST; and has appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Alfassa’s education includes a Harvard Business School post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business Strategy; a BA in Homeland Security and a Masters in Public Administration. His book “Essays in American Public Safety and Emergency Management” was released last month.

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