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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

Do NOT travel messaging in Winter Storms.

NYS travel ban message

The December 2022 winter storm in New York affected more than just Erie County and the city of Buffalo. While Erie and Buffalo bore the majority of the impacts, there were clear opportunities for improvement across the entire state especially in terms of risk communication. This could be seen in high traffic areas on heavily traveled roadways where motorists could be stranded, requiring resources for rescue or blocking essential services such as plows or other heavy equipment from moving through the region.

This weekend, as the 1/13/2024 winter storm hit Western New York in full strength, NYS Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) used their access to FEMA Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to issue multiple Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), notifying travelers of travel bans that were being implemented.

In the message above, NYS issued their first travel ban to Erie County. This complete message included the source, hazard, hazard description, location, time, and guidance. They use ALL CAPS to call attention to the TRAVEL BAN and the guidance DO NOT ATTEMPT TO TRAVEL, ensuring that those words were highly visible to readers. They also provide a URL to more information.

Not long after, DHSES issued another message, this one directed to motorists or travelers who may have been on the highways, particularly commercial vehicle drivers.

NYS commercial vehicle ban message

While much of the content is repeated from the initial message, this WEA adds the specific locations that are most directly affected in Western NY (I-90 from Rochester to the Penn State Line). This message is also complete, including the source, hazard, location, hazard description, and guidance in addition to notifying drivers that the ban is in effect.

Some additional things we really like about these messages: While this some jargon (lake effect snow and white out conditions) they interpret the hazard by providing description of the impacts associated with those conditions. This heavy snow will mean that visibility is reduced and travel will be impossible. With this kind of descriptive information, the name "lake effect snow" becomes meaningful for people who may not be familiar with the specific hazard type, but can interpret the rest of the message.

Sure, people who live in Upstate New York may know what lake effect snow and white out conditions are, but those who were preparing to travel to Buffalo for football game over the weekend may not have realized how dangerous the conditions would become. In hindsight we can now see that the conditions were truly dire for many hours and the messaging to keep people off the roads may have been key to eliminating many accidents and deaths.

These messages look like there were written using the Message Design Dashboard software, that was built by the University at Albany. It's a proud day for academics when decades of research are made useful for practitioners who rely on evidence-based guidance to do their work.

For more recommended contents, be sure to download The Warning Lexicon - it's free and offers step-by-step instructions on how to write a better warning message.


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