San Diego Union Tribune    

May 11, 2005

House bill would change color-coded terror alert system
Threat level increases should include guidance for public, critics say

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – After years of being the target of complaints from state and local officials – and the butt of jokes by late-night comedians – the federal government's color-coded terrorism warning system might be in for an overhaul.

Legislation making its way through the House would require the Department of Homeland Security to make several changes in the system, such as offering more guidance about what protective measures should be taken if the threat level is raised.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox has said the current system is "universally viewed as broken."

"The Homeland Security Advisory System has too often seemed to tell the American public that they are at grave risk, without telling them why or what to do about it," Cox, R-Newport Beach, said in a statement on the legislation. "The rough justice of color coding threat conditions for the entire nation must yield to a more sophisticated warning system."

Two recent congressional research reports documented widespread disenchantment with the system and warned that the public was losing confidence in it.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has acknowledged the system's shortcomings and said the department is considering changes.

"We have now a little bit more experience about what's useful and what's not useful, and it's a good time to take a second look," he said at a recent congressional hearing.

Local officials were happy to hear that.

"One of the complaints that everybody had when it first came out was, 'Here it is. What does it mean?' So defining it better, nailing it down a little better, making it more specific would be a help," said Tom Amabile, senior emergency services coordinator for San Diego County. "It would certainly give us a better feel for the types of things the federal government would use as a trigger from one to another level."

The system, which has become one of the most publicly visible symbols of the Homeland Security Department, was created under a directive issued by President Bush in March 2002. It uses a five-tier, color-coded advisory to warn of terrorist threats facing the nation, ranging from "low" (green) to "severe" (red), meaning an attack might be imminent.

The level has remained at "elevated" (yellow) most of the time over the past three years. It has been raised to "high" (orange) on six occasions. Each time, state and local emergency officials sounded a chorus of complaints, ranging from confusion about federal assessments of the danger to the cost of ramping up security without much specific information about the threat.

After the level was raised to orange for the fourth time, in May 2003, in response to general concerns about a possible al-Qaeda attack, some cities refused to do the same or started tailoring their responses more carefully than in the past.

"You could incur a tremendous amount of expense just flexing your system when it's not a specific threat to your area," said Augie Ghio, San Diego's director of homeland security. "We evaluate it. We coordinate very closely with law enforcement agencies and other emergency response agencies, and then we make a decision. Many times, because it's not a specific threat to San Diego, we may not take any additional actions other than making the color-coded change."

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