The Need for Common Terminology

On November 2, 2010, in Alerts & Warnings 101, General, by with SRA International

While there is some degree of consistency in the use of terminology, there is still work needed in this area as the terms “alert”, “warning” and “notification” are used interchangeably.

A popular school of thought that seems to be well accepted considers an alert to be the initial message to grab the public’s attention, and the warning as a message which provides more information about the event. Denis Mileti, a recognized social scientist, uses the following definitions in his presentations on the topic:

  • Alerting – getting people’s attention
  • Informing – telling people about the pending disaster
  • Warning – telling people what to do and why

The term notification seems to span across all three definitions given its use in “mass notification systems” and “campus notifications”. Meanwhile, NOAA uses the term warning if the “…event is occurring, is imminent, or has a very high probability of occurring”; it issues a watch “…if the risk has increased significantly…but its occurrence, location, and/or timing is still uncertain.”

In the international community, early warning is used consistently for alerting in instances of imminent and short term concerns. However, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) considers early warning to include issues which take much longer to develop and may be better identified as “emerging environmental threats.”

However, the most critical area for consideration is standardization of message content – state and local alerting systems differ in how they develop and define alert messages.   As one example, some messages may use “remain in place”, while others may use “shelter in place”, causing confusion for the public.

I welcome comments and other insights.

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One Response to The Need for Common Terminology

  1. avatar Baylink says:

    This is also a problem that the newswire business has dealt with in the past; they have their “FLASH”, “BULLETIN”, “WRITETHRU” and “ADVISORY” tags, the latter identifying stories which are internal, and not end-user news.

    This bit of taxonomy has been done several times in other disciplines, that being only the most prominent, I think.

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