Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not So Fast: The End of the Color Coded Alert System

            Because the color-coded rainbow threat alert system from the Department of Homeland Security proved so incomprehensible to citizens, media and experts alike, it has been scrapped.  A replacement is on the way.
Many people complained that the old system scared them without telling them what to do. But scaring people is part of the point of a threat alert system.  Even in a time of reduced danger you should be aware that someone or something out there may be about to do you harm.  This encourages you to make preparations regularly and check them periodically. As the likelihood of an event rises so should your preparedness. And because that likelihood may be driven by your location or activity, the alerts should be tailored to your specific situation.
            Let’s examine a flexible 5 level system that is easy to use and will tell you exactly what to do. Stick with me for a couple of hundred words.  I promise you will be interested in the end.
            Level 1 is just your basic situation in the modern world: aware of the need for preparedness, but without any specific danger on the horizon. Whether you are heading a family, a school or a shopping mall, you should have a plan for dealing with a variety of emergencies, and you should pull it all out periodically and review it.
            Ok so far?
            Level 2 is for when something might be up, but there is not yet any specific threat – like when drought in your area might cause wildfires, or an unusually virulent strain of flu has been identified in another country, or a crazy person shoots up a high school which might lead to a copy cat at your location.  Let’s dust off the plans and update them even before our periodic review is due. 
            Still seem clear?
            Level 3 is for when something is up: a threat hangs in the air, it might impact you directly, but we don’t know where or when. A hurricane is forming off your shore; small wildfires dot your county, or a gang of thieves has been hitting jewelry stores in malls like yours in near-by cities. Time to take down the plans and actually practice them – have law enforcement stop by, review procedures with family and employees, maybe activate your telephone alert roster. People who run stores in some parts of your town live at Level 3 all the time.  So do facilities that might be the target for terrorists, or unbalanced employees. And executives who are subject to attack or kidnap. Lots of people (like law enforcement or first responders) will live their lives at Level 3, practicing heightened security on a daily basis. Others will stay mostly at 1 or 2.
            Doesn’t seem too hard to me – does it to you?
            Level 4 is a little tougher.  This is when specific threats develop to specific facilities, industries or locations. When a hurricane takes aim at a specific city, that’s Level 4. Or when a nut job with a penchant for a particular politician takes his gun and stomps out of the house. Or when a father overseas calls the American embassy and says “I think my son is going to blow up an American passenger plane.”  In fact, because we know there are plots in development all the time, the commercial aviation industry might stay at Level 4, while the rest of the country maintains a lower readiness profile.  At Level 4, potential targets should do everything possible to reduce their vulnerability, prevent attack, protect themselves, and be ready for quick response. They might close some entrances, tightly control passage through others, eliminate receptacles where bomb or guns could be hidden, beef up roving security, etc.
            Still, thinking up ways to secure people and facilities for Level 4 seems doable don’t you think?
            And Level 5 is when an actual attack is taking place.  Shooting has broken out, someone has breached the perimeter, one bomb has been found and there might be others . . . threats like this call for shutting down operations and locking down security.
            So is there anything in these 5 levels that you just can’t understand? Just can’t implement?
            OK, here is the interesting part.  I just described to you the color-coded alert system, but as Levels 1-5 instead of colors Green thru Red.
            The problem with the old system was the colors not the actions. You and I are used to choices 1 thru 5, or A thru E.  We just don’t think of Green-thru-Red as a priority of choices. So there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old system that a few cosmetic changes (like from colors to numbers) could not address.  And the old system had the advantage of reminding individuals, business people and local government officials that in the modern world there are some dangers all the time – and they have a personal responsibility to prepare with plans and resources and exercises that are refined as the danger grows more specific.
            So how about the new binary system we are adopting in place of the 5 levels – will it be an improvement?  Well all we have so far is a proposal which may change before adoption, so I won’t complain about any specifics.  You can review the initial ideas in a very good story at .  But what it touts so far is a flexibility to focus alerts on specific locations and specific sectors or targets for specific times – a capability we had under the old system but rarely used. Its other advertised advantage is focusing on “security professionals”  (Like mall cops? High school principals? Flight stewards?)  and relieving average citizens from all that pesky worry about terrorism and other threats.
            So at the same time the administration has done a good job of pushing individual and community resilience, and business continuity, it establishes a binary alert system that takes “non-professionals” out of the equation. Everyone else seems to be applauding.  I am not so sure.

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