New Terror Alert System Aims For Clarity, Not Color

Apr 20, 2011

The new system of homeland security alerts unveiled Wednesday replaces one that critics said was vague and confusing — but it's not yet clear whether the simplified version can do any better job of keeping the public safe and informed.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday that the familiar red, orange, yellow, green and blue alerts will be supplanted by just two alerts: "Elevated Threat," warning of a credible terrorist threat against the United States, and "Imminent Threat" for a credible, specific and impending threat.

The problems with the color-coded alerts were manifold, said Edward Clark of Executive Interface, a risk management and homeland security consultancy. He called the near-continuous orange alert status for the entire airline industry "ridiculous."

The old system, he said "initially just scared the public and cost a lot of money" because of the increased security costs that came from nonspecific threat warnings.

"Broadcasting a vague warning that doesn't have specifics on how to react only raises the anxiety level of the general public," agreed Kevin McCarthy, a private security analyst and former airline pilot.

"Just saying, 'Oh my God, watch out for this — oh my God, watch out for that,' doesn't cut it," he said.

Current Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement issued Wednesday that the new system would include such specifics as "geographic region, mode of transportation, or critical infrastructure" affected and "actions being taken to ensure public safety, as well as recommended steps" for individuals, communities, business and governments.

Clark compared the two approaches to getting a vaccination.

Under the old system, "the government would tell you to get a shot, but it wouldn't tell you what the disease was or how dangerous it was," he said. "The new system will tell you why you need to get that shot."

Bennet Waters, the chief operating officer of the Chertoff Group — founded by Michael Chertoff, Napolitano's predecessor — defends the old system as the "first iteration" of an evolving method for keeping the public informed.

"There was some confusion," conceded Waters, who worked under Chertoff at DHS. But "during our time in government we made a deliberate effort to be as specific as possible."

"I think the goal is always to get actionable intelligence," he said. "But, there's a delicate balance of when and how to share that information with the public."

McCarthy thinks that while the new system is an improvement, money could be better spent on educating the public in how to put threats into perspective in their everyday lives.

"I don't think the system works very well at all, frankly," he said. "People have to accept that on the whole, yes, we're going to take some hits [from terrorists]," he said. "There's no way around that."

McCarthy points to the British and how they handled the July 2005 bombings in the London subway system.

"In a few days, they were right back on the Tube," he said, referring to the nickname for the subway. "Now, can you imagine if that happened in D.C.? Do you think anyone would have been back on the Metro for months?"

He said no matter the alert system, the result is going to be an increase in anxiety. Efforts might be better focused on campaigns to help people identify and report threats, he said.

"The single best resource we have in this country is the people. And we're not using it," McCarthy said. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit