I wrote in May 2010 about “The Boy Who Cried ‘Car Bomb’, pointing out that the constant barrage of terrorism false-alarms (and fire drills) has made us less capable of dealing properly with actual emergencies. It hearkens back to the age-old fable of the boy who cried ‘wolf,’ which serves as a cautionary tale about being honest, and about the natural human reaction to real or perceived dishonesty. The boy cries ‘wolf’ over and over when there is no wolf, tricking the villagers. Finally, when there is really a wolf attacking the sheep, the villagers ignore the boy’s cries, assuming that he is lying again.
Fire drills and spurious terror alerts aren’t ‘lies,’ per-se, but they have a similar effect on people. When somebody showed up at Arlington National Cemetery last week, claiming to have explosives in his backpack and saying that he had planted devices around the Pentagon, my gut instinct was to ignore it. I assumed, rightly in this case, that it was just another pointless false-alarm. But when there is really a bomb planted at a major landmark, after a decade of constant fear-mongering, people won’t evacuate quite as quickly as they would have if they hadn’t been needlessly evacuated twenty other times before. Likewise, the constant fire drills in most buildings (especially those with federal offices in them) have numbed us to the alarms and most of us just ignore them now. I doubt that will serve us well when the building is really on fire. I contend that unnecessary fire drills make us less safe, not more so.
What else has gotten so repetitious, so needlessly annoying, and so consistently incorrect that most people ignore it? Severe weather warnings. When it comes to tornado warnings, most National Weather Service (NWS) forecast offices have a false-alarm ratio in the 80-90 percent range. I would venture a guess that their false alarm ratio for other severe weather events is similarly high. I get text messages whenever a severe weather warning is issued in my area, and it’s not uncommon for a single moderate storm cell to generate a string of five or ten warnings over an hour or two . . . all to warn me about an average, run-of-the-mill summer thunderstorm that comes and goes over ten or fifteen minutes without causing any damage. I have a weather radio that can be configured to provide an audio alert when there is severe weather in the area, and I’ve turned it off because the ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio was almost all noise. Out of literally hundreds of times it sounded, it provided me with useful, important, actionable information maybe two or three times. The annoyance wasn’t worth it for the minimal benefit.
And, guess what! Like fire alarms and terror warnings, the overbearing and absurd overflow of weather warnings makes it less likely that people will have their weather radios on, or their cell phones subscribed to alert text messages, and less likely that they will know when real severe weather is bearing down on them. Thankfully, some people are beginning to notice this—like meteorologist James Spann at ABC 33/40 in Alabama. It is comforting to know that I am not completely alone on this.
So what’s the solution? Fire alarms should only sound when there is a fire. Terror alerts should only go out when authorities are reasonably certain something real is happening. Weather alerts should only go out when there is actual, dangerous weather happening (and alerts should only go out to people who might actually be affected by it). Don’t cry ‘wolf’ when there isn’t a wolf. Reserve the warnings for serious, urgent situations; if we do that, we make it much more likely that people will take them seriously.