Flight Out of Danger

It’s hard to warn people to stay clear of dangerous situations. Motorists will remove road barriers and drive right into danger. They’ll even use logging roads to get around road closures. Vague direction to “be aware” or “take shelter” may be misunderstood or ignored by many.


For the most part, urban emergency plans are dominated by vague jargon and buzzwords. Aspirational statements about emergencies abound, but few plans offer real solutions to crisis situations, or even realistic language.

But thankfully, Jacksonville/Duval County has taken a few steps in the right direction when it comes to public safety. Instead of vague directions to stay safe, Jacksonville provides vivid descriptions of the danger. A hurricane is described as “…a bulldozer clearing everything in its path…” Flying debris in a windstorm is called “…a battering ram destroying objects in its way…”


This sort of language is a wake up call for people who have not lived through a serious storm and just think of high winds or a big wave of water as good fun.

I might need similar creativity to help Floridians understand the danger in a Canadian snow storm. I wouldn’t want people thinking of big fluffy flakes of snow, as in a Disney cartoon. I’d want them to think about thousands of pins and needles hitting their faces, flesh freezing in minutes, and air so cold it’s hard to breathe.

There’s another reality check in Jacksonville. The plan notes that “temperature-related deaths in Florida exceed those caused by hurricanes and tornadoes combined.” For all those who go to Florida for the warm weather, this is a useful alert.

Most of the 100 urban emergency plans that I studied don’t have Jacksonville’s creative and effective way of describing a threat.


Some use Quantitative Risk Analysis (QRA) with complex formulae 
and decimal points. These are lost on most people, including me, and I’ve been trained in QRA. Others have the useful direction to make sure your drinking water isn’t poison after a flood, but no indication of how to do this. Jacksonville is a leader in plain speaking and simple warnings.

It’s also smart to use the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Dora to remind people of the danger and pictures to tell the story, including vividly showing a storm surge.

No plan is perfect. There’s work to be done on Jacksonville’s plan too. The public doesn’t need or understand the pages of legal authorities, information on appeals to FEMA, 18 pages of civic boosterism, and less than fascinating acts. Is the public any safer reading that “…the PW goes to the FCO for approval. If there is a disagreement on the PW, it is returned to the applicant for resolution of the discrepancy. The second review, conducted by FEMA staff, is done before final approval of the FCO. If the PW is approved, it is forwarded to the ECO for approval.”


The language here could be simplified, but I wonder if that information is really necessary at all.

Official responders don’t need their own job descriptions in a plan. Nevertheless, the Jacksonville plan includes these. Jacksonville’s plan also includes something that they call the “Planning P”: an informational graphic designed to explain how to assess and respond to a threat. The “Planning P” may be good graphic art, but it’s unique in the emergency response field and not easily understood. Best to stick with plain English.


Windshileld surveys (driving around) and flyovers are out of date now that drones have been invented. If wedding photographers can benefit from drones, so can 
emergency responders.


The high points in Jacksonville’s plan are a reminder that those dedicated to saving lives can never stop putting better systems in place.