UN official launches UCL centre for disaster warnings research

08 Jul 2021 | Network Updates | Update from University College London
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The new UCL Warning Research Centre, the world’s only institute researching the role of warning systems in managing hazards, risks, vulnerabilities and disasters, has been formally launched by Mami Mizutori, the head of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

The centre, led by Dr Carina Fearnley (UCL Science & Technology Studies), brings together expertise from UCL and around the world and aims to work with businesses, governments and other organisations to meet the growing need for effective warnings and alert systems for many forms of risks and disasters.

Mizutori, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative of the UNDRR, who gave the keynote at the launch event, said the launch of the centre was “timely and important”, adding: “The centre explicitly brings together not just researchers but also practitioners, policymakers, media, the public and importantly will guide the next generation of students, who will be adding their energy, urgency, intelligence and creativity to solve some of the thorniest challenges of our time. It is truly another great example of a whole of society approach.

"On behalf of the UNDRR I am pleased to welcome the UCL Warning Research Centre to the rich network of organisations and individuals seeking to change the way we create safer and more resilient communities.”

Dr Fearnley, the new centre’s Founder and Director, said: “Effective warnings and alert systems save lives. Some disasters occur without any warning system in place, as seen in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami where over 227,000 people died, while others follow warnings that were not heeded – this was the case for the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz volcanic eruption in Colombia. Over the last year, meanwhile, we have seen the importance of effective communication of alert levels in the context of a pandemic, and we have also seen multiple hazards happening at the same time, requiring contradictory action – for instance, rapid evacuation while keeping social distancing.

“Our new centre is the only research centre in the world focused on warning systems. Studying and sharing practices on warnings for all vulnerabilities, hazards, and threats is important so that we can be better prepared for future crises and events.

“The centre will bring together expertise from a range of disciplines and from all over the world to help establish more effective warnings that are more connected to and used by people. We will be a place for researchers to work together to find solutions to complex problems, and to engage with the public and policymakers.”

Professor Ilan Kelman, Deputy Director of the UCL Warning Research Centre, said: "Warning research can and should create the agenda to generate actions for saving lives through science. We have plenty of success stories for warnings to learn from and improve the failures, particularly that warnings are too often seen as being about data and technology, yet they are fundamentally a social process. Warning systems should not be separate from daily life to be invoked only when a threat manifests. Instead, warning systems can support people in their everyday activities to improve life and livelihoods."

The UCL Warning Research Centre brings together 25 academics at UCL and 20 affiliates from universities and institutions globally. The official launch for the new centre took place at the 11th annual conference of UCL’s Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), which focused on the theme of why warnings matter.

A second launch event will take place on 30 June, with the title: “What Warnings Mean?” This event, organised by UCL Science & Technology Studies, brings together artists, academics, terrorism alert experts and a civil servant responsible for disaster relief in Bangladesh to explore the meanings of warnings and their visual representation, as well as how to put warnings into practice via policy.

This article was first published on June 24 by UCL. 

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