Risk communication for catastrophic events: Results from focus groups

Rae Zimmerman, Carlos E. Restrepo, Alison Culpen, Wendy E. Remington, Alison Kling, Ian Portelli, George L. Foltin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Focus group methods are adapted here to address two important needs for risk communication: (1) to provide approaches to risk communication in very extreme and catastrophic events, and (2) to obtain risk communication content within the specific catastrophe area of chemical and biological attacks. Focus groups were designed and conducted according to well-established protocols using hypothetical sarin and smallpox attacks resulting in a chemical or biological release in a confined public space in a transit system. These cases were used to identify content for risk communication information and suggest directions for further research in this area. Common procedures for conducting focus groups were used based on an initial review of such procedures. Four focus groups - two for each type of release - each lasted about two hours. Participants were professionals normally involved in emergencies in health, emergency management, and transportation. They were selected using a snowball sampling technique. Examples of findings for approaches to communicating such risks included how information should be organized over time and how space, locations, and places should be defined for releases to anchor perceptions geographically. Examples of findings for risk communication content are based on how professionals reacted to risk communications used during the two hypothetical releases they were presented with and how they suggested using risk communications. These findings have considerable implications for using and structuring focus groups to derive risk communication procedures and types of content to be used in the context of catastrophes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)913-935
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2010


  • disasters
  • focus groups
  • risk communication
  • terrorist attacks

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • General Social Sciences
  • General Engineering
  • Strategy and Management


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