Flash Flood Risks and Warning Decisions: A Mental Models Study of Forecasters, Public Officials, and Media Broadcasters in Boulder, Colorado

Risk Anal. 2015 Nov;35(11):2009-28. doi: 10.1111/risa.12403. Epub 2015 May 19.


Timely warning communication and decision making are critical for reducing harm from flash flooding. To help understand and improve extreme weather risk communication and management, this study uses a mental models research approach to investigate the flash flood warning system and its risk decision context. Data were collected in the Boulder, Colorado area from mental models interviews with forecasters, public officials, and media broadcasters, who each make important interacting decisions in the warning system, and from a group modeling session with forecasters. Analysis of the data informed development of a decision-focused model of the flash flood warning system that integrates the professionals' perspectives. Comparative analysis of individual and group data with this model characterizes how these professionals conceptualize flash flood risks and associated uncertainty; create and disseminate flash flood warning information; and perceive how warning information is (and should be) used in their own and others' decisions. The analysis indicates that warning system functioning would benefit from professionals developing a clearer, shared understanding of flash flood risks and the warning system, across their areas of expertise and job roles. Given the challenges in risk communication and decision making for complex, rapidly evolving hazards such as flash floods, another priority is development of improved warning content to help members of the public protect themselves when needed. Also important is professional communication with members of the public about allocation of responsibilities for managing flash flood risks, as well as improved system-wide management of uncertainty in decisions.

Keywords: Expertise; flash flooding; mental models; risk communication; warning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.