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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

Private Sector WEA messages? Yes, it's a thing.

On November 19, 2023, Adams County, CO issued a WEA on behalf of Suncor refinery on a Sunday morning at 4:32 am. It blasted phones across 18 square miles just northeast of Denver, waking people from sleep and angering many. You can read about it and watch a news story here.

an alert for suncor refinery excessive flaring

While the timing of the message was poorly selected, there are also significant issues with the message itself. We know that messages need to include 5 key contents:

  • Source

  • Hazard

  • Location

  • Guidance

  • Time

These contents help message receivers to understand the hazard and the actions they should take; personalize the message and the threat; believe that the threat is real and that they should take action; and decide what actions to take. A complete message will reduce information seeking, or milling, which delays action when action is necessary. In this case, there is no source, location, time, or protective action guidance.

Milling is also the activity of searching for answers, and in this case, milling includes posting complaints to social media. This led to a local news story calling attention to the problems that Adams County created for itself as well as to problems with Suncor refinery.

The decision to issue a message is one of policy. FEMA-IPAWS has not created a policy about the conditions in which an alerting authority is allowed to issue a WEA. While guidance exists suggesting that WEA emergency alerts are for imminent threats that are severe and certain, public safety alerts have a great deal of flexibility. This flexibility means that alerting organizations have the authority to issue a message at 4:30 in the morning for an event that is not a threat. In the case of this alert, perhaps they did so because Suncor asked them to; perhaps they did so to prevent calls to 911; perhaps it was a mistake.

At The Warn Room, we don't often advocate for policy about when to issue a message but we do point to evidence about the effects of message issuance on user continuance and intention to keep WEA turned on. We know that this particular event would challenge the publics' willingness to keep these alerts enabled. And that is a problem.

But this is also a problem of trust. If an organization wishes to be viewed as competent and trustworthy in the eyes of the public, it needs to use care when issuing messages that are so disruptive. Social and political capital are fleeting and the appearance of a lack of consideration for the population that is being alerted will certainly affect organizational reputation.

As a matter of practice, we did revise the Suncor alert to show what it might look like if it was a complete message.

a revised alert for suncor refinery

We added the source, identified the hazard of interest and described what the hazard will look like. We added the time and the location of the hazard. We used capital letters to emphasize that EXCESSIVE GAS FLARING is NO DANGER to the public. And, probably most importantly, we changed the time of the message so that it was received at a more reasonable hour.

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.


Feel free to post this on your social media site, just remember to attribute it to The Warn Room and include the web address: - Thank you!

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