Warning fatigue : Insights from the Australian Bushfire Context

Type of content
Theses / Dissertations
Publisher's DOI/URI
Thesis discipline
Media and Communication
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
University of Canterbury. Media and Communications
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Mackie, Brenda

Warning Fatigue or Cry-Wolf effect is a taken-for-granted phenomenon that can result from being ‘over-warned’. The terms are used to describe situations where individuals who are exposed to recurring warning messages about a disaster which then does not eventuate become cynical, apathetic and ‘tired’ of hearing warnings. They may become desensitised to the risk thereby endangering themselves even more. The assumption by practitioners (emergency managers and governmental policy-makers for example) that warning fatigue is a problem presents emergency agencies with a conundrum: they want to avoid the accusation of panicking the public but worry they may run the risk of under-preparing them at the same time. As a result, they may be tempted to err on the side of caution, delay issuing a warning and downplay the possible severity of a potential disaster.

Examination of the literature, and an analysis of presentations and news stories have shown that policy-makers, emergency managers, academics and the public use the term ‘cry wolf’ or ‘warning fatigue’ in everyday life. They regard it as conventional wisdom and believe it can influence risk perception and warning response. Nonetheless it has been presumptively assigned by some disaster theorists to the category of a myth. A limited warning fatigue literature has examined the phenomenon in the context of rapid-onset disasters and has concluded that risk perception is not affected by warning fatigue. However, it also suggests there is a direct relationship between warning time, preparedness and response. This allows for the possibility that warning fatigue may not be a myth, but a function of the type of disaster, the frequency of warnings and warning lead-time. This thesis makes a distinction between rapid-onset and prolonged lead-time disasters and hypothesises that prolonged lead-time disasters are responded to in very differently ways than rapid-onset ones. Australian bushfires provide the context in which this research was conducted because bushfires are repeatedly warned about yet rarely (once every ten or twenty years) result in a major disaster.

Using social constructionist and social representation theoretical frameworks, and integrating psychosocial and sociological perspectives, this thesis examines the role that warning fatigue plays in the risk perceptions, warning responses and decision-making processes of people living in bushfire-prone areas of Australia. Utilisation of a mixed methods design, a substantive literature review and two rounds of semi-structured interviews resulted in a conceptualisation of a bushfire warning fatigue measure (BWFM). Application of the measure among at-risk Australian communities validated the measure. Through empirical statistical analysis, this standardised instrument was revised (BWFM-R) and used to measure the change in warning fatigue levels over a fire season (November 2011-April 2012). Analysis showed that warning fatigue appears to be multi-faceted comprising five aspects: Trust and credibility, over-warning, false alarms, scepticism and helplessness. It was also found that warning fatigue responses are contextual and interconnected with ‘unofficial’ warnings (such as media stories). The direction of the change and analysis of the qualitative component of the survey implied that unofficial bushfire rhetoric from the media during the winter months may produce a warning fatigue effect, so that when the official warnings were issued at the beginning of the bushfire season, the public were already ‘tired’ of the message.

Trust and credibility, over-warning, false alarms, scepticism and helplessness are not new factors in public warning response to disaster communication, but this research demonstrates that they can combine in a unique way to produce ‘warning fatigue’. It proposes that if emergency and disaster agencies differentiate between rapid-onset and prolonged lead-time disasters, understand the complexities of warning fatigue and design their warnings accordingly, then disaster risk communication will become more effective, increasing public engagement and improving disaster response.

Warning Fatigue, Risk Communication, Disaster Warnings, Warning Response
Ngā upoko tukutuku/Māori subject headings
ANZSRC fields of research
Copyright Brenda Mackie