Word choices are important when communicating about wildfire risks

Blog Post created by cathyprudhomme Employee on Jun 14, 2017

At some point, we've all been told to Watch our Words, or Choose Your Words Carefully; just ask my three kids how many times they've heard that from me during their lifetime, and they'll quickly tell you it's into the thousands.


Words are powerful - they have the potential to deliver both wanted and unwanted meanings. They can motivate, or completely shut someone down. During October and November 2016, the National Fire Protection Association’s Wildfire Division hosted a series of six Community Conversation Workshops with wildfire stakeholders in Georgetown, TX; Helotes, TX; Austin, TX; Yakima, WA; Deschutes County, OR and Ashland, OR, to collect feedback and input for use in the future development of our wildfire resources and education/outreach materials.


The workshop's facilitated interactive format provided opportunities for participants to share how wildfire related terminology and delivery styles can impact, resonate and motivate interest and participation in mitigation actions.


In the world of wildfire communication and outreach, the word mitigation is one of the most widely used and through the workshops we learned that doesn't always associate back to the intended meaning; and in many instances it triggers an association to litigation, or some other type of legal implication. Workshop participants shared simple clear word choices are better understood, and replacing the word Mitigation with Wildfire Risk Reduction, may actually move people to get involved and take the intended actions.


Forestry agencies, fire departments and others frequently offer to provide local residents with a wildfire assessment, evaluation, inspection or consultation - as a service that assists in identifying areas where residents can improve a home’s chances of survivability during a wildfire; much to the chagrin of those well-meaning individuals, we found use of those words often generates associations related to taxes or insurance, frequently accompanied by thoughts of a potential penalty, fine or fee. Substituting those words with options like:  property walk-through; fire-risk overview; or home/property visit, tends to resonate better with residents and are thought of as being more inviting, which increases the chances that the service will be embraced and welcomed.


As stakeholders develop future outreach language, we all need to be cognizant of our word choices and ensure they're relevant, simple and jargon-free, so they easily resonate with our target audiences which increases engagement and participation.