New technologies and citizen perception of the communication of emergencies


Author: Carles Pont Sorribes
Citation: Pont Sorribes, Carles (2012). "Las nuevas tecnologías y la percepción de los ciudadanos ante la comunicación de emergencias"., 10,


Abstract: The irruption of new technologies has allowed a substantial improvement of information in emergency situations. This research presents the adaptation of the Catalan administration to different information systems to spread information on risks, catastrophes and emergencies. The spread of that information is analyzed together with the application of new technologies, especially Web 2.0, compared to the United States. Besides, the perception of the Catalan public opinion regarding the quality of the information and the mechanisms through which a crisis episode is reported has been studied.
Keywords: emergencies, perception, risk, media, Web 2.0., administrations, crisis
Table of contents: 

1. Introduction
2. Methodology
3. Theoretical framework
4. Contextual and legislative analysis
5. Results
5.1. The perception of the population regarding information on emergencies
6. Conclusions
7. Bibliography

1.  Introduction

The adaptation to new information technologies in every field of knowledge is irremediable, but it seems that the transition towards new electronic supports does not always happen effectively and quickly, especially in emergency situations. This is proved by the fact that the majority of Catalan citizens barely use electronic public resources ( developed by their administrations) to get information on these kind of situations, or by the fact that the emergency number 112 is still widely unknown among the population, as this research intends to demonstrate.

Most civil protection protocols include the use of information systems that, when used properly, have helped citizens to better deal with these situations. Nevertheless, an important amount of these guidelines or protocols have become obsolete by the fast and constant irruption of "new media" that seem to consolidate in parallel to traditional mass media such as radio, television and press. Therefore, Internet as an information element on crisis and disasters seems to be increasingly used by citizens but not as much implemented by public administrations[1]. Besides, telephony and its leading role in the ecosystem of social communication, especially through mobile Internet, bring about changes on how to get information. This frame helps to study the extent of use of these information systems to spread information on episodes of risk, crisis or emergencies. Additionally, this research also intends to delve into the perception that the Catalan public opinion has on the quality of the information received from the administration, and which media are used by the citizens to get information on emergency episodes.

This research intends to evaluate the quality of IT implementation in the communication of emergencies in Catalonia and to find out about the perception of the Catalan public opinion on emergencies communication management.

Finally, three working hypothesis have been suggested: 1. - In general terms, the Catalan public administration does not fully exploit the potential offered by Information Technology (IT) when compared to how it is used on the United States.  2. - Catalan citizens do not know the tools the administration puts within their reach to get information on risks and emergencies. 3. - Conventional media are the platforms chosen by the Catalan public opinion to get information on civil protection issues.


2.   Methodology

To undertake this research, three methodologies have been used:

a) Qualitative and specific analysis of websites; b) In-depth interviews and c) Omnibus-type surveys.

A comparative analysis of emergencies websites from Catalonia[2] and the United States has been taken into account, regarding the specific quality indicators of their contents, the audience those contents are aimed at and the communication channels used to inform the population. It has been decided to analyze the American model[3] because previous researches have deemed it to be one of the most suitable in spreading information on emergencies on the part of public administrations (see note 3).


United States (English) (Spanish)

The second method chosen in this research has been the in-depth interview. This is a qualitative method that must both flexible and dynamic, since it is meant to find out about the level of acquaintance with events and activities that cannot be directly observed

(Taylor and Bogdan, 1984: 20-50). Other authors prefer the term "intensive interview" (Wimmer and Dominick, 2001:122). Intensive interviews provide with detailed references of opinions, values, motivations, experiences and impressions. For this research, three in-depth interviews have been conducted regarding the field of research and risk communication to: 1) Marc Homedes, head of the general direction of Civil Protection in Generalitat de Catalunya, 2) Jenny Kitzinger, head of department at Cardiff University and director of the research group Risk, Science, Health and the Media, 3) Mik Barton, Press Office from Highways Agency (England).
Finally, to find out about the perception of the Catalan public opinion regarding new technologies and civil protection, omnibus[4] surveys undertaken by the sociology and market research cabinet CERES and commissioned by Generalitat de Catalunya have been analyzed. A total of three omnibus surveys conducted in November 2008, May 2009 and May 2010 have been chosen. The technical specifications of the Omnibus consultation in Catalonia regarding the perception of risk and civil protection refer to all people above sixteen years old residing in Catalonia. The selected sample is of 1060 individuals. The sample has been stratified by provinces, and within each province there has been a proportional selection of population from each comarca and according to the percentages of gender and age as established by Idescat data. To obtain representative results, these have been weighed according to the real distribution of population in Catalonia. The methodology employed to develop this research is based on a quantitative focus, wherein a phase of information gathering is framed through the telephonic application of a questionnaire structured and aimed at the consulted people and the collection of data, together with their subsequent treatment[5].


3. Theoretical framework

A study conducted by Graham Murdock, Tom Horlick-Jones and Judith Petts gives some indication of the reasons of change in risk communication, partly in coincidence with those already noted in previous parts of this text. The British authors evidence that information technology (IT) must be understood more as an opportunity than as a problem, because most of the public opinion access public space not only through radio, press and television but also through the Internet.

When faced with significant risks, public opinion wants to be attended to (Murdock et al., 2001), that is to say, they want to be helped in deciding whether to buy certain foods, to use certain means or transportation and so on. This rationalization process forces authorities to extract interpretations and multiple sources of information (Murdock et al., 2001: 91), so that the reciprocal communication among the different actors interacting in the risk domain allows for a much more effective management (Bennet, 1999).

The  World Wide Web (WWW) takes center stage in this communicative process. Media, information technology, and specially the web become essential resources for risk communicators. How easily public opinion is able to access decision-making about how to deal with an emergency, as noted by Murdock, situates Internet as an important repository of information that becomes crucial in crisis management. Most of the administrations in the most developed countries have placed in the WWW most of the transmission of risk information, a responsibility only conventional mass media assumed in previous years.

4. Contextual and legislative analysis

The organization of Civil Protection reports to the Dirección General de Protección Civil [ General Directorate of Civil Protection] and the Dirección General de Prevención,  Extinción de Incendios y Salvamentos [General Directorate of Prevention and Extinction of Fires and Rescues]. In Catalonia, civil protection is an organic competence of the Department of Home Affairs, Institutional Relations and Participation of the Generalitat. According to the Normativa Básica de Protección Civil (NBPC, Basic regulations of Civil Protection) from the Spanish state, each comunidad autónoma must create and regulate its own plans, which in the Catalan case are organised through the Plan de Protección Civil de Cataluña (Procicat, Plan of Civil Protection of Catalonia).
Regarding the communication and information technology, the Law of Civil Protection in Catalonia establishes that the Information Department is the only coordinator where all the generated information must be gathered. Legal authority is invested on this department to unify the content of the information to avoid confusion, contradictions, and to establish the models of communiqués, both to mass media and to the population.

Emergency Management in the United States is structured from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Numerous agencies attached to the new Department of Homeland Security, created on 2003, report on FEMA.

As a result of the 9-11 attacks in 2001, and after creating the Department of Homeland Security, two websites have been put within public reach listing advice in case of emergencies: that of Ready America (English version - and Listo.Gov (Spanish version -
This websites provide with instructions from how to find a family emergency plan to practical advice on which products must be stored permanently, where to run and which devices must not remain on. Besides, FEMA has created the website FEMA for Kids, the children's version of the federal emergencies website of the United States.


5. Results

There have been analyses of the intended audience addressed by the contents of the websites. Also, some research has been done regarding the communication channels used by the administrations so that citizens are able to get information in crisis situations.

a) Audience: it has been evaluated following two criteria. The first one concerns the different audiences addressed by the contents of these websites. This information has been inferred by analyzing their contents. The second criterion is based on checking whether each website is offering different kinds of navigation attending to different audiences, that is to say, if the homepage menu allows access to specific sections addressed to different audiences. The habitual distinction is made among six types of audiences: general public, experts, volunteers, companies, children and authorities. The results are shown in the following figure:

Figure 1: Contents of the websites.



General public






Emergències (CAT)






+ (EUA)














Source: Elaborated by the author.

b) Communication channels: it has been studied what additional/alternative channels are put at the disposal of the users in the website itself. These channels can be seen in detail on figure 4:

Figure 2: Adaptation to IT





Mass media




(web 2.0)



Emergències (CAT)






No  (EUA)







Source: Elaborated by the author.

Both websites provide the population with advice on what to do, where to be, how to protect themselves and which supplies to have before a specific emergency situation. Nevertheless, the quantity and the quality of the information provided are substantially different. offers better advice and is clear and concise.


5.1. The perception of the population regarding information on emergencies

The opinion of the citizens is relevant when administrations have to plan their information policies. In this research, three kinds of omnibus surveys commissioned by Generalitat to the opinion poll company CERES in November 2008, May 2009 and May 2010 have been analyzed. Among the questions we have thoroughly analyzed regarding the object of study of this research, three issues stand out: if there is enough information, if citizens are acquainted with emergency plans and the channels (media) Catalan people choose to get information on emergencies. The answers of the people consulted on whether the level of information received on emergencies was considered sufficient reveal that most of them (48%) believe they are poorly informed, 17% believe they are not at all informed, 30% believe they are quite informed, 4% believe themselves to be well-informed and there is a percentage of 5% people who"don't know, no answer".


Figure 3: Perception on information about emergencies


Source: Ceres. Omnibus May 2010.


Perception on whether there is enough information in case of emergency


Not at all informed

Poorly informed

Quite informed



Regarding how acquainted are citizens with Civil Protection plans[6] from Generalitat de Catalunya, most of those polled claim not to know them. This fact reveals an imprecise definition of the information policy regarding emergency plans, or maybe the use of an inappropriate glossary (Plan Neucat, Inuncat, Infocat, Transcat): "It is obvious that advancements have to made towards a more common vocabulary, messages should be changed and more pedagogy applied to the warnings among the population and in the media, which are highly responsible and are a great help to us", as its head of communication acknowledges[7].
The omnibus survey also shows that more than half of the population does not know whether Generalitat has devised any kind of action plan in case of snowfall, to quote an example that has been randomly studied. Specifically, 34% of those polled have not heard of any plan and 22% don't know or answer, whereas 45% of the people surveyed have actually heard of a snowfall plan. These data are significant if we take into account that two months right before these surveys (on March 2010), Catalonia suffered one of the most important snowfalls of the last years.
The data produced regarding Neucat plan (snowfalls) do not improve in other plans such as Inuncat or others like Camcat (contamination of sea waters) or Sismicat (earthquakes). In the specific case of another well-known plan such as Inuncat (floods), the survey from May 2010 reveals that 32% of those polled did know about a plan, whereas 34% did not know and 34% did not answer. Data become even more revealing when specifically asking about the name of the plan: 29% of those polled get the name right, whereas 71% say names that have nothing to do with what is established by the Catalan administration.

Most Western countries have other ways of informing public opinion and mass media, colour codes being the most common, as in red alert, orange alert or yellow alert. This nomenclature is more effective than some acronyms like Infocat or Sismcat, which besides being hard to understand are hard to convey: mostly, those in charge of communication tend to quote them without explaining their meanings.

The data analyzed in the survey precisely show this ignorance of the plans, but what is more worrying is the answer when asking the name and use that public opinion gives to each plan. Concepts, risks, plans and acronyms are mixed without much sense.

When analyzing the channels through which the Catalan public opinion gets information on emergencies regarding the specific case of the snow, data are overwhelmingly inclined toward television, amounting to 81% of the answers, followed by radio (17%), press (15%), Internet (8%), brochures (3%) and 1% of "don't know". These data belong to the last survey from 2010, but do not strongly differ from the same surveys from previous waves.


Figure 4. Media that citizens consult


Source: Ceres. Omnibus May 2010

Media through which citizens get information in case of emergency







Regarding the different media, public television channels TV3 (2474 mentions) and TVE (331 mentions) are the most quoted among the citizens as a reference in case of emergency, followed by 3/24 (news channel of Televisión de Catalunya) with 200 mentions. Regarding radio, Catalunya Ràdio goes first with 241 mentions, followed by RAC1 with 201 mentions and Catalunya Informació with 75 mentions.
In answer to the question of what should be done to involve population on emergencies, it is significant that most of those polled believe communication should be improved. Fifity percent of those polled claim that more information, communication or advertising would be needed, 30% claim they should show more awareness and solidarity, 15% believe education should be improved through classes and 5% claim that warnings should be improved, among other results.

Finally, we believe the answers regarding how acquainted people are with emergencies number 112 to be pertinent and revealing. A percentage of 34% of those polled know this number, 43% of them does not know it, 17% says it is 012, and 6% give other telephone numbers. Similarly to the consultation of May 2009, it is detected in the May 2010 survey that 66% of those polled do not say the correct number for emergencies. In this respect, it is clear that the spread policy of such an important tool for the public opinion as the telephone number that integrates most of emergencies has not proved to be efficient enough.


6. Conclusions

From previous research it is possible to conclude that the implementation of new information technology to spread information on risks and emergencies is still to be improved by the Catalan administration. The use of information systems based on the Web has not been fully developed. The information published is confusing and poorly structured for the people unacquainted with it, which are the main target of this information. The absence of a navigation structure adapted to the kind of audience that visits the website clearly indicates this disorganization, in contrast with the systematization and clarity of the foreign web object of study. The publication of online materials seems to be more inclined to following regulations than to be an education tool or an efficient element in communication.

The measures of integration of these new technologies in the institutional communication of emergencies have been already proved in this and previous researches to be important to quickly and universally reach the population. Likewise, emergencies telephones such as 112 have not been fully implanted within the population, considering that 66% of the people do not even know it.

The good use of new technologies might help prevent risk situations and improve emergencies management. The US population has been using the web for years in order to obtain any kinds of information. It is not a risky hypothesis to assume that, in case of emergencies, a good part of the population will look for online information in a proactive way.

Meanwhile, it is important to stress that the perception of the Catalan public opinion on emergencies and civil protection is not adequately informed. According to the results of the analyzed surveys, 65% of the Catalan people consider that they do not receive enough information about risks and emergencies. Likewise, citizens are not acquainted with the plans from Generalitat allowing the activation of prevention measures. Most of the citizens, that is to say 55% of them, are not acquainted with a prevention plan for snowfalls such as Neucat, and among those who know about it, not everyone is able to mention the right name. It is suggested to emulate the solutions used in other Western countries, that is, to adapt the warnings to a colour system and not to difficult acronyms which are hard to understand and explain for journalists. It is important to remember that "risk is a concept to perceive as an experience, and therefore is a kind of judgement partly based on how catastrophic you think it is. Risk is a term that is built, that comes socially determined, mostly by mass media and Internet[8]".

Finally, it is important to emphasize that television is still the predominant medium of information for citizens when faced with a risk or emergency. Despite the growing importance of new technologies, 81% of the people that answered to the May 2010 survey (see figure 4) get information through television. A percentage of 17% get information through the radio, 15% turn to press, and 10% to Internet[9]. 


7. Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich. (1998): La sociedad del riesgo global, Madrid, Siglo Veintiuno de España Editores.

Bennet, P.; Calman, K. (eds.). (1999): Risk Communication and Public Health. New York, Oxford University Press.

Burkhart, Ford N. (1991): Media, emergency warnings, and citizen response, Boulder Colorado, Westview, cop.

Casasús, Josep Maria; Cáceres, Johanna. (1999): Els enllaços entre els serveis d'emergència i els mitjans de comunicació en situacions de crisi: les catàstrofes naturals, Observatori de la Comunicació Científica, Barcelona, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Castelló, Enric; Domingo, David. (2007): "L'ús de les TIC en la comunicació de risc i la gestió d'emergències: oportunitats i límits", en Farré, J; Fernández Cavia, J. (eds.) Comunicació i risc petroquímic a Tarragona. De les definicions a les pràctiques institucionals, Tarragona, Publicacions URV-Cossetània.

Codina, Lluís. (2004): Posicionamiento Web: Conceptos y Ciclo de Vida [online], "", iss. 2. <> [Retrieved: 21/12/2007].

Committee on Risk Perception and Communication, National Research Council. (1989): Improving Risk Communication, Washington, D.C, National Academy Press.

Kitzinger, Jenny. (1999): 'Researching risk and the media', Health, Risk and Society, vol. 1, iss. 1, pp. 55-69.

Kitzinger, Jenny. (2008): 'Media Discourses and Framing of Risk', Social Contexts and Responses to Risk Network, p. 27.

Murdock, Graham; Horlick-Jones, Tom; Petts, Judith. (2001): Social amplification of risk:. The media and the public, Contract Research Report: Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

Pauchant, T.C.; Mitroff, I.I. (1991): "Crisis prone versus crisis avoiding organizations: Is your company's culture its own worst enemy in creating crises? Industrial Crisis Quarterly, vol. 2, iss. 1, pp.  53-63.

Pont, Carles (2009): Comunicació i Crisi. La gestió pública en episodis d'emergència, Barcelona, Editorial UOC.

Pont, C., Codina, L. & Pedraza, R. (2009). Comunicación de riesgo y sistemas de información en la web: cinco modelos informativos.  EPI. El Profesional de la Información, vol. 18. iss. 4. 

Reinhardt, C. (1987): "How to handle a crisis", Public relations Journal. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Vol 43, iss. 11, pp. 43-44.

Voces Merayo, Ramón (2007): ¿Por qué la web debe ser accesible? [online]. "", iss.  5. <> [Retrieved: 24/01/09].

Taylor, S.J.; Bogdan, R. (1984). Introducción a los métodos cualitativos de investigación. Barcelona: Paidós.

Wimmer, Roger; Dominick, Joseph (2001): Introducción a la investigación de medios masivos de comunicación, Mexico D.F., Internacional Thomson Editores.

[1] Carles Pont i Sorribes. La World Wide Web y el cambio de paradigma informativo ante las crisis[online]. "", iss. 2, 2004.>

[2]    The Spanish comunidades autónomas have their competences transferred in Civil Protection. This is why it has been deemed relevant to study the website from the comunidad autónoma and not that from the Spanish government.

[3]    The author undertook a previous research with participating experts from the field of web analysis to decide on universal quality indicators. This research can be found at Pont, C., Codina, L. & Pedraza, R. (2009). "Comunicación de riesgo y sistemas de información en la web: cinco modelos informativos".  EPI. El Profesional de la Información. Vol 18, iss. 4. 

[4] Omnibus surveys are those conducted periodically about several issues, generally political ones.

[5] To obtain all the technical data, for instance of the sampling error, see: "Consulta sobre aspectes relacionats amb la percepció de risc i la protecció civil en el marc del òmnibus Catalunya. Omcat. 2010."

[6]    Law 4 / 1997, May 20th, of Civil Protection in Catalonia (error correction in the DOGC iss. 2406, p. 6158, from 06/05/97). Procicat establishes three levels of declaration of  emergency: "Alert", "Emergency", and a third one which is "Activation of the Plan". The last point refers to setting up special plans for most frequent situations in Catalonia. Generalitat has devised different plans, whose nature requires suitable technical and scientific methods to evaluate them and deal with them. It also provides special protocols for situations like forest fires, snowfalls, floods and earthquakes, besides other protocols for risks caused by chemical and nuclear industries.

[7]    In-depth interview with the head of Communication of the General Directorate of  Civil Protection in Generalitat, Marc Homedes. Date 17/09/10.

[8]    In-depth interview with Jenny Kitzinger, head of department at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. Head of the research group Risk, Science, Health and the Media (Date: 16/7/10)

[9]    These results were multiple choice and that is why they add up to more than a 100.



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