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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Memo To ‘Color Alert’ Task Force: Put Your Citizen Hats On, Design With/For Public, Integrate Into Overall Citizen Preparedness Program, Consider All-Hazards Approach (Maybe Starting With H1N1), Replace Changing Colors With Consistent Communications, Advisory Should Be Two-Way, Let Public In ‘The Bubble’, Utilize Social Media

July 22nd, 2009 · 8 Comments

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced last week that she was appointing a task force to examine the future of the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) better known as the (much maligned and parodied) color-coded alerts.

Following a 60-day review period, the bipartisan task force will present its findings to Napolitano, who will in turn discuss them with other Cabinet agencies before making a recommendation to the White House.  I think it is terrific that the Secretary has assembled an accomplished and thoughtful group to look at this difficult communications challenge. It is very important not only as the alert system needs an overhaul but also because the color codes became a symbol of the government’s inability to communicate with and inform the public on emergency issues. The HSAS review offers a great opportunity to reintroduce the concept of homeland security to the citizenry and underscore their role in (and responsibility for) it.

The Department is now accepting comments on the future of the HSAS, which can be sent via email to My suggestions are below. I have focused my analysis on the public aspect of the alert system not the other audiences that the HSAS was also designed for (ie. state and local governments, law enforcement, the private sector). My overall recommendation would be to suspend the current system and work on a more integrated approach that makes governmental alerts part of a stronger citizen preparedness effort, involves local and state initiatives, is two-way and provides more contextual information, covers all-hazards, includes robust ongoing communication between government and governed, and takes better advantage of new technologies.

* Consider The Public Separate From Government & Business – ”The mission of the Task Force,” according to its press release, “is to assess the effectiveness of the system in informing the public about terrorist threats and communicating protective measures within government and throughout the private sector.” I would argue that those tasks are not one in the same. One of the biggest problems with the current alert system is that it tries to serve too many masters. Alerting the citizenry is a different task than doing so for government and business. If the Task Force decides to maintain the HSAS in any format, I would definitely decouple the alerts so there is one specifically for the public.

* Put On Your Citizen/Parent Hats – Too often in these panels, the public perspective is left out: 1) because the governmental and business audiences are seen as more important, 2) the public warning is actually more difficult to design, or 3) there is no one in the room who is representing citizens as their top priority. I would hope each member puts aside their official titles and responsibilities and uses their citizen/parent eyes and ears when discussing public needs in these meetings. “If I was at home with my family and I heard this.” they need to ask themselves, “would it make sense? Would it be enough? And would I know what to do?” The good news is that Task Force Co-Chair and former Bush White House Terrorism Adviser Frances Townsend is very aware of that objective. In fact, she has told me in previous interviews that she views citizen preparedness policy through the prism of a mom. That’s a viewpoint necessary in the development of an effective alert system and, for that matter, citizen preparedness in general.

* Design With/For Public – Public emergency information is frequently designed without real public input and guidance. If there is any citizen review and approval, it is typically comprised of a couple of focus groups filled with people who aren’t totally sure what they’re offering feedback on. I would argue that there is no clear analog for alerting and informing the public on the range of threats (many new and unknown) we now face. And on the distribution side, there is definitely nothing in history like the new personal technology available to the government and the public. So, this is a very complex communications challenge. Getting meaningful citizen input and guidance is not simple, but it is crucial to developing a resonant, effective system — and in turn fostering a resilient public.

Further, the Task Force must make sure that they design a public alert system that is tailored specifically for the public not for other official stakeholders. For example, the World Health Organization’s pandemic levels may have been helpful to public health officials but they were confusing for citizens (particularly when a “pandemic” was declared and nothing changed). Similarly, as Amanda Ripley among others have pointed out, the U.S. hurricane categories are not as helpful alerting impacted communities about the severity of their situations as they should be. That’s because they only take wind into consideration not potentially more destructive storm surge.

In this March 12, 2002 file photo, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge unveils a color-coded terrorism warning system in Washington. The Homeland Security Department says it will review the multicolored terror alert system that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette)

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge introducing the Homeland Security Advisory System on March 11, 2002 (AP Photo)

* Integrate Revamp Of Alert System Into Revamp Of The Larger Public Emergency Information/Preparedness Program – In announcing the Task Force Napolitano said, “My goal is simple: to have the most effective system in place to inform the American people about threats to our country.” I believe that achieving that goal cannot be done with a solitary alert system, but requires a more complete, integrated approach. To increase both its effectiveness and acceptance by the public, I think the alert system needs to be tightly tied into the overall governmental citizen readiness campaign (which I would expect will also be updated by the Obama Administration). Doing so would offer more context for the public and align the government’s citizen emergency communications. It would also help answer the question that Americans have when they hear a new alert: ‘Ok, now what should I do?’

* Work Towards Integrating Local, State, And Federal Technologies/Messaging – Similarly, it would be helpful to the public if any federal system is aligned with those of states and localities who are currently signing residents up for their text and email alerts. That’s important for consistency in communicating with the public, but it will also help in tailoring alerts by region, subject matter, and various specific “public’s”. Further, there is a need to decide and then to explain how any new alert initiative is related to the current Emergency Alert System and new-generation technologies such as IPAWS. (It would also be useful to explain the difference between an alert, a warning and an advisory!)

* Consider Creating An All-Hazards System (And If So, Doesn’t H1N1 Deserve An Alert?) — At the H1N1 Flu Preparedness Summit earlier this month, I heard senior U.S. officials including Napolitano and White House Homeland Security Advisor Brennan warn the public that the virus was “a deadly threat” and “time is of the essence” with the hope of persuading Americans to take action – begin preparing for what could be a very serious situation in the Fall. It is not a terror threat, but it has the potential to be similarly deadly (from the public’s perspective, what is the real difference in actions?)

There might be a concern that broadening the subject matter would dilute the impact of a warning for a major terrorist attack. Yet for the public (but not necessarily other stakeholders) many of the post-alert steps are the same whether it’s a serious pandemic or bioterror incident. Or a major hurricane for that matter. At the H1N1 Summit, top officials said that citizens should be preparing their homes as well as checking into the contingency plans for their places of work and children’s schools for the flu — well, that’s exactly what governments have been telling the public to do on for terrorism and natural disasters for years. This messaging could be coordinated so the public understands how they relate and overlap, with one complementing the other. Again, a key for the panel is looking at this from how the public consumes and acts on emergency information and alerts.

* Less Colors More Communication – It is very possible that the current graphic representation could be replaced largely with a robust commitment to ongoing communications. Last month, Napolitano held a news conference to highlight a couple of new Department initiatives, including a new mission statement, “The Department’s Five Responsibilities” in which she asked “Americans to live in a constant state of readiness, not a constant state of fear.” That seems like a good qualitative description of the nation’s (and the public’s) optimal status. And, in fact, I was interested in hearing her elaborate, because I thought it would offer some public guidance on this exact issue. But I didn’t get through. (A Department press aide suggested I post the question on my blog, and they would try to get an answer.)

It may be that there isn’t a need for an alert chart, but instead just being in the “state of readiness” — at which we now live our lives as parents, employees, etc. anyway — is a good enough description. It’s called citizenship in the 21st Century. Of course, government may have to tweak its description depending on the situation. Whether or not the alert color codes remain, it is crucial that officials keep an ongoing conversation on these issues with the American public.

* Make “Advisory” Two Way – New communications technologies allow for relevant information now to be provided by the public to the authorities in emergencies. Every American with a mobile phone is a potential ‘alert-er’ to collect and distribute information. Alerts and warnings no longer should just be top-down. Any new approach should incorporate the public as part of the system. The Task Force will have to look at both the content of the alert messages but also the distribution of them. This presents authorities with both a great opportunity and challenge.

Color Codes In Denver International Airport by you.
Color code chart in front of  the TSA security checkpoint I went through at Denver International Airport on Thursday
* Let The Public Into ‘The Bubble’ A Bit – One of the biggest problems to me about the current alert system is that the public has little context for understanding what they are being alerted to. A threat is publicized and then does not occur, which then makes many Americans skeptical about the initial communication. Some of the threats may have been real, others not, still others it may be unclear. But without any information it can sound like crying wolf.

Clearly, there is a limit to what the government can say without imperiling sources and methods. But many security officials I’ve spoken to believe there is more that can be told. In fact, many say that they would like to offer the public more information so Americans understand the threat situation better. It makes their jobs easier, establishes more credibility, and it may innoculate the public when/if something does happen. A new Administration has the opportunity to start fresh on informing the public and taking us a little bit into ‘the bubble.’

This disconnect between the government and the public on this was brought home to me in 2008 when Michael Mukasey was appointed U.S. Attorney General. After initial briefings, he acknowledged being “surprised to be surprised” about the range and scope of terrorism threats to the U.S.. Mukasey was a federal judge who presided over terrorism trials, and he felt uninformed; think about the level of knowledge of the average citizen.

Follow Up With The Public — To me, another part of the public education process on alerts is following up on them whenever possible. For example, on August 1, 2004, the alert was raised from Yellow to Orange, specifically for the financial services sectors in New York City, Northern New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.
”as a result of new and unusually specific information about where al-Qaeda would like to attack.” Plans and photos of various U.S. buildings, one of which was the Citigroup Center here in Manhattan, were found in a computer at a suspected terrorist’s home. Security was immediately ramped up and pedestrian access to the shopping center on the lower levels was restricted. As a result of the lower traffic, a number of small retail businesses there were forced to close.

Four years later, I still don’t know what happened and think about it everytime I pass the building. And I do believe New Yorkers (and all Americans) have the right to know whether the threat was serious, not serious or still unknown. Should we still be concerned about an attack on that building? Or not? Or is it still unclear? I say that because if warnings are issued and nothing happens it erodes the attention and credibility of those warnings. If, as it seems to have been the case, that this threat (and the subsequent color change) was ultimately not a real danger , then tell us. We are not going to be upset (unless of course the warnings were politically manipulated which is another issue); we know how difficult the intelligence business is. (And, in fact, I think that officials don’t tell us enough about threats that are credible but were either discouraged or actually foiled.)

* Take The Risk To Talk About Risk — I would also use the relaunching of an alert system as an opportunity to launch a discussion on risk with the American public. To me, there is no more important homeland security subject. How we react to these potential threats is in many ways tied to how we manage risk in government, the private sector and the public. And the citizenry’s understanding of the risk tradeoffs can have a significant impact on how the other stakeholders end up acting.

* Meet The Press, ‘Old’ & ‘New’ – The explosion of media has great potential to amplify and make any governmental alert system far more effective. But the multifaceted distribution also means the government has to be far more nimble in presenting its alerts. The Task Force should reach out to top media, communications and technology minds in this space as well as companies (some of whom are already creating alert platforms for users) for help . And any alert rollout should include a public education campaign involving communications business groups like the Wireless Foundation showing citizens how they can both receive and provide alerts and information.

* Use The Ivory (Warning) Tower — Another group that should be consulted are academics. There are a number of scholars who have done extensive research on alerts as well as the role of social media and other technologies in emergencies. They should be part of the process. Last week, at the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Workshop, I attended a panel with some of the leading experts on warnings. I asked what they would suggest the Task Force do. They were skeptical that the current bad situation would be improved, and worried that the alert system could be made even more confusing. “First, do no harm.” is a good caution, though I am more optimistic about the Task Force’s work.

* Look Across The Pond – As members of the panel undoubtedly know, the British government produces a National Risk Register which publicly lays out its biggest concerns, both natural and man-made. It is very much a public document that is aimed at engaging and informing the English population. Being so up front has the effect of making them partners not only in dealing with threats but also in helping choose what the country’s emergency preparation priorities should be — and giving people a sense of the tough choices officials must make when it comes to security.

* Plan On A HSAS 3.0 — The task of alerting the public is not an easy one. It cannot can be finished and completely tied up in 60 days.  There is challenging content (unfamiliar threats) and distribution (social media and other technology) issues. The current overhaul should be seen as a starting point. Events, technology and experience will inform, change and improve whatever the task force comes up with in the months and years to come. This will be an evolving situation in which the government will both lead and learn. This blog will be following and hopefully contributing to that evolution.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. I am confident in the Task Force which includes a number of folks who have regularly been in the pages of this blog, including Townsend; James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation; Clark Ervin of the Aspen Institute; Mary Fetchet from Voices of September 11th; and Ed Skyler, the Deputy Mayor of New York City. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please comment below, email me at and/or send a public comment to

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