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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

Lead with fear?

New Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment. February 3-6, 2023

The messages sent to alert the Village of New Palestine, OH were absolutely vital to their safety. Given the potential for devastation, should the rail cars have actually exploded on Feb 6, 2023, helping families evacuate and get to a safe place was a top priority. Several WEA messages had gone out, but they were incomplete and lacked clear instruction about the hazard, the severity, and the protective actions necessary for those near and far away. One can only imagine the confusion that was present following the initial derailment and the days that followed prior to the final decision to do a "controlled burn." While it's not a WEA, I was struck by this message posted by the Sheriff's office instructing people to leave or they would be arrested. Instead of leading with information about the threat and potential consequences, they chose instead to cite legal precedent for detaining and charging persons with a felony. Apparently others who work in the alert and warning space were also struck by the disconnect between good alert and warning practices versus those demonstrated during this event (click the link above to go to the Twitter thread). Research on fear appeals, that is, trying to scare people into taking action, has shown that emotional arousal is just one part of the puzzle. People must also understand the threat/hazard and what they can do to protect themselves. The Sheriff's office, essentially, shifted the focus away from the train car and its contents that could explode, to a focus on their authority. Rather than emphasizing the importance of taking action for reasons of personal safety, they emphasized the crime associated with not taking action. While this may be an approach utilized by law enforcement agencies, beginning with a command and control model, it certainly doesn't follow the empirical research record from the past 50 years.


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