Modifying the Color-Coded Threat Alert System
I wrote about the DHS’s color-coded threat alert system in 2003, in Beyond Fear:
The color-coded threat alerts issued by the Department of Homeland Security are useless today, but may become useful in the future. The U.S. military has a similar system; DEFCON 1-5 corresponds to the five threat alerts levels: Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Red. The difference is that the DEFCON system is tied to particular procedures; military units have specific actions they need to perform every time the DEFCON level goes up or down. The color-alert system, on the other hand, is not tied to any specific actions. People are left to worry, or are given nonsensical instructions to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape. Even local police departments and government organizations largely have no idea what to do when the threat level changes. The threat levels actually do more harm than good, by needlessly creating fear and confusion (which is an objective of terrorists) and anesthetizing people to future alerts and warnings. If the color-alert system became something better defined, so that people know exactly what caused the levels to change, what the change means, and what actions they need to take in the event of a change, then it could be useful. But even then, the real measure of effectiveness is in the implementation. Terrorist attacks are rare, and if the color-threat level changes willy-nilly with no obvious cause or effect, then people will simply stop paying attention. And the threat levels are publicly known, so any terrorist with a lick of sense will simply wait until the threat level goes down.
Of course, the codes never became useful. There were never any actions associated with them. And we now know that their primary use was political. They were, and remain, a security joke.
This is what I wrote in 2004:
The DHS’s threat warnings have been vague, indeterminate, and unspecific. The threat index goes from yellow to orange and back again, although no one is entirely sure what either level means. We’ve been warned that the terrorists might use helicopters, scuba gear, even cheap prescription drugs from Canada. New York and Washington, D.C., were put on high alert one day, and the next day told that the alert was based on information years old. The careful wording of these alerts allows them not to require any sound, confirmed, accurate intelligence information, while at the same time guaranteeing hysterical media coverage. This headline-grabbing stuff might make for good movie plots, but it doesn’t make us safer.
This kind of behavior is all that’s needed to generate widespread fear and uncertainty. It keeps the public worried about terrorism, while at the same time reminding them that they’re helpless without the government to defend them.
It’s one thing to issue a hurricane warning, and advise people to board up their windows and remain in the basement. Hurricanes are short-term events, and it’s obvious when the danger is imminent and when it’s over. People respond to the warning, and there is a discrete period when their lives are markedly different. They feel there was a usefulness to the higher alert mode, even if nothing came of it.
It’s quite another to tell people to remain on alert, but not to alter their plans. According to scientists, California is expecting a huge earthquake sometime in the next 200 years. Even though the magnitude of the disaster will be enormous, people just can’t stay alert for 200 years. It goes against human nature. Residents of California have the same level of short-term fear and long-term apathy regarding the threat of earthquakes that the rest of the nation has developed regarding the DHS’s terrorist threat alert.
A terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic, without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective. Even worse, it echoes the very tactics of the terrorists. There are two basic ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of people. The second is to keep people living in fear. Decades ago, that was one of the IRA’s major aims. Inadvertently, the DHS is achieving the same thing.
Finally, in 2009, the DHS is considering changes to the system:
A proposal by the Homeland Security Advisory Council, unveiled late Tuesday, recommends removing two of the five colors, with a standard state of affairs being a “guarded” Yellow. The Green “low risk of terrorist attacks” might get removed altogether, meaning stay prepared for your morning subway commute to turn deadly at any moment.
That’s right, according to the DHS the problem was too many levels. I hope you all feel safer now.
Here are some more whimsical designs, but I want the whole thing be ditched. And it should be easy to ditch; no one thinks it has any value. Unfortunately, if the Obama Administration can’t make this simple change, I don’t think they have the political will to make any of the harder changes we need.