Fixing Those Awful Color-Coded Terror Alerts

A task force concludes that the color-coded terror-alert system isn't working, so bloggers offer their ideas on how to improve it

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Practically since its inception, the Homeland Security Advisory System--the color-coded method devised to warn citizens about the relative chance of a potential terror attack--has drawn withering criticism. Here's some more: On Tuesday, a task force convened to reevaluate the system concluded that "there is currently indifference to the Homeland Security Advisory System" and "a disturbing lack of public confidence." (Full disclosure: Atlantic Media Company owner David Bradley sits on the advisory council.) The report stops short of recommending that the system be abolished, as many critics would like it to be, but it does advise reducing the number of threat levels from five to three. The blogosphere offered its insight and wit on the current system:
  • The Public Hates It The AP, via CBS, trolled through the public comments on the current system: "In their comments, people likened the current system to the boy who cried wolf. Others criticized it for not following the natural color spectrum. And some wanted the system to be based on numbers as opposed to colors and to mirror the weather alerts familiar in communities across the country."
  • Don't Fix What Ain't Broke The War News Updates blog argues that overhauling the system will be expensive and disruptive to the institutions--mainly first responders--that actually find it useful. Citing the report's finding that the system has "functioned reasonably well" for this audience, the blogger writes: "the professionals who have now grown accustomed to it .... [might not] be enthusiastic for an overhaul." 
  • It's a Gold Mine for Bureaucrats Frank James of NPR says that while the efficacy of the system is debatable, its real beneficiaries are the people who run it--and then leave: "Something that pops out at you from the report is found in the acknowledgment section. There appears to be a trend emerging. Napolitano's immediate predecessor, Michael Chertoff, has started a consulting business called The Chertoff Group. His predecessor, Tom Ridge, has a consulting firm called Ridge Global. Can Napolitano Associates be far behind?"
  • It's Ugly The New York Times delves into the aesthetics of the terror-alert system, commissioning four graphic designers to draft their visions of what a revised format should look like, an exercise that yields everything from line-graphs to emoticons.
  • It's Irredeemable, Kill It At the Cato Institute, Jim Harper says the system should be done away with entirely: "A fundamental premise of this project (and the color-coded system) is wrong: The government cannot tell the people how to feel about threats, and it should not try to. Rather, the government should share the information it has (warts and all), allowing the public to digest it and synthesize it." Spencer Ackerman agrees: "Insanity is the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded terrorism 'alert' system, which tells you nothing except that people are capable of coloring within boxes at airports."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.