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Communicating the Emergency: Preliminary findings on the elements of an effective public warning message



Erica D. Kuligowski


When an emergency occurs, it is not always sufficient to simply initiate alarm bells. Individuals may not know what the alarm bell means and, in turn, may respond inappropriately to its sound. Many buildings have installed mass notification or emergency communication systems allowing for the dissemination of information in the event of an emergency. However, there is a lack of guidance on how to effectively use current emergency communication systems. Especially with the development of newer technologies, such as mobile devices or social networking tools, guidance on message content and dissemination is crucial to ensure effective and safe response of building occupants during an emergency. This paper presents preliminary research findings from an ongoing project aimed at identifying appropriate emergency message content and dissemination techniques for various types of emergencies in buildings and building campuses in the United States. The paper ends with a discussion of the cultural differences that may complicate these U.S.-based findings, hopefully prompting emergency managers in others countries to begin to identify the vulnerabilities within their communities and ways to improve public response in emergencies through effective emergency communication.
Technical Note (NIST TN) - 1689
Report Number


evacuation, emergency messages, mass notification


Kuligowski, E. (2011), Communicating the Emergency: Preliminary findings on the elements of an effective public warning message, Technical Note (NIST TN), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, [online], (Accessed May 21, 2024)


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Created February 28, 2011, Updated February 19, 2017