Today, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a replacement for the Homeland Security Advisory System, which was scrapped by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in January and won’t likely be missed by anyone.
The new system—dubbed the National Terrorism Advisory System—takes the right steps toward adequately communicating with the public about the risks we face and will ensure that the alerts are more than just background noise in the busy lives of Americans.
For instance, the system focuses on ensuring that alerts are (1) clear and simple and (2) specific/actionable. Instead of the silly color system where Americans were expected to disaggregate the consequences of the color orange from the color green, it will label a threat as either “elevated” or “imminent” and provide specific information on the threat where possible. It will then provide next steps that can be taken to “prevent, mitigate or respond to the threat.”
The old system had zero credibility because it would ratchet up terrorism concerns by changing the color level regardless of whether the nature of the risk actually warranted an increase. It was also too general for citizens to understand how it might impact their local communities. A threat in New York City might mean little to citizens in Nebraska—or it might be a lot—but no one ever knew.
Yet despite the lack of clarity, the federal government would respond by spending collectively billions on physical security efforts. Worse yet, DHS never knew whether the measures were successful at preventing or deterring attacks or were simply playing a game of “name that color.”
This is a positive step forward. Now is the time for DHS to go further by getting serious about its role as the lead integrator of the nation’s preparedness efforts. The recent publication of PPD-8—a long-awaited national preparedness directive—should be the impetus for DHS to reform grant processes in a way that conforms to its new capabilities-based preparedness policy and aligns with national preparedness goals.