Green Light for the Alert System

Odd isn’t it how often we stumble over small details on the way to larger issues – how often we can’t see the forest for the trees. Unfortunately, something like that seems to have happened to many people as they look at the new alert system for homeland security. Many observers are hung up on colors and unfamiliar terms like “severe risk.” They are missing the point. The key question is, does the alert system tell us what to do as conditions change?

And the answer is . . . yes. If you can get over the clunky terms and color coded life styles – if you can get past the individual trees – this is a pretty good product, which not only gives us a better feel for the forest, but helps us chart a way through it.

First, a couple of points we must all understand.

No national alert system is going to tell an individual or a family precisely what to do. But local systems, tailored to the local situation, might. For example, the protective measures required for various levels of threat are quite different for people living near the petrochemical center of Beaumont, Texas, or the huge ships docked in San Diego, California, or the landmarks and population centers of Chicago, Illinois. It is local plans and local actions that will tell citizens exactly what to do – and make any alert system succeed or fail.

Second, we cannot protect everything everywhere all the time. Perfect security is impossible. As the Secret Service has long known, anyone willing to give his life to attack a target will eventually find a weakness. So the purpose of an alert system is to discourage attack by making success less certain, and to and save
lives by making response quicker and more efficient. Don’t expect more of the alert system than it can deliver.

Third, an alert system can’t really tell us how worried we should be or exactly what we are looking for. Intelligence is almost never that specific. We live in a new world of new threats – we will have to be on the lookout all the time, for as long as we live. If someone wants to learn how to fly an airliner but not how to land it, or wants to buy a lot of explosives for a little job, or seeks to buy radioactive medical waste, or wants details of the building where we work, we should ask questions – regardless of the “alert status.” So what the alert system really tells us is whether a threat is serious enough to divert our resources – time, money, people, etc. – from our day-to-day activities. Should we draw down our personal lives, and our government services and our economic productivity in order to increase our protection?

Fourth, we will never know if the alert system works. We will never know if a scheduled attack is cancelled because of our improved security. But we do know that it is expensive and exhausting (and boring) to remain on high alert. So we must have a way of powering down when things get quiet.

Put all that together and you need a system that groups security responses into categories, tells local decision makers when to activate those categories, but lets those closest to the problem design the specific measures. This is exactly what Governor Ridge’s system does — and pretty well, as it turns out. So let’s skip the colors and focus on the actions.

• In normal times, all of us (individuals, schools, private businesses, state and local governments, police, etc.) ought to have plans on the shelf to deal with local vulnerabilities. Just as we need snow plans and tornado plans, we need security plans. And we ought to hire people, buy equipment, and train and exercise in accordance with those plans. And we ought to periodically review them. Green alert status reminds us to do this.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

• If concern increases for some reason, we ought to take those plans down before the normal review date, dust them off, and update them – and maybe review our training as well. This would be Blue status.

• Should tensions rise, we need to begin to coordinate and exercise our plans across different agencies and levels of governments. People move, phone numbers and email addresses change, equipment and procedures are swapped out constantly. What worked last year with a school or a hospital or the police in the next county over, might not work this year. When conditions indicate that we should divert time and money and people to continuous coordination, then we call that Yellow status.

• If an attack appears likely, then it is time to change our day-to-day habits of life. Be really watchful for anything out of the ordinary. Divert people and resources to increasing security. If we have detailed threat information, get the word out. And make sure everybody knows what to do if we begin shutting down public and private activities. Local officials will have to decide on the specifics. Remember the scurrying around to reorganize private and public schedules when a hurricane or major snowstorm is about to arrive? Well, status Orange looks like that – with better organization. We can continue most activities, but at a hefty price in people and dollars.

• And finally, when attack is imminent, and we have some indication of where or when, circle the wagons and protect. Normal business stops; normal life is interrupted; major events are canceled. Everyone is alert to threats; everyone prepares to respond. Status Red means stop and make security your first priority. We can’t keep this up for long, but it is very important to get it right when announced.

If you forget the titles, skip past the colors, and cut to the chase, this is a very logical system. It gives those designing local guidelines an excellent framework to organize their responses. And it gives all of us a way to balance the security we want to have, against the sacrifices we are willing to make.