Terror Alert System To Undergo Overhaul
By Charlie Keenan

Homeland Security director Tom Ridge announces the terror alert color code system at a press conference in March 2502. (Photo Courtesy The White House)

Terror Alert History

3/12/02 Yellow
9/10/02 Raised to orange
9/24/02 Lowered to yellow
2/7/03 Raised to orange
2/27/03 Lowered to yellow
3/10/03 Raised to orange
4/16/03 Lower to yellow
5/21/03 Raised to orange
5/30/03 Lowered to yellow

The color-coded system used to alert Americans about potential terrorism has hit a few snags.

Using rainbow colors—green, blue, yellow, orange, and red—the system was designed to warn citizens and state and local governments about the day-to-day potential for attacks. In order of alarm: Green is "low risk," blue is "guarded," yellow is "elevated," orange is high-risk, and red is "severe."

In one four-month period this year, the alert was raised three times. New York City has been on orange alert since the system went into effect in March 2002. The rest of the nation mostly fluctuates between yellow and orange. The constantly changing levels have given the system the feel of a Chicken Little story in which someone is always crying "The sky is falling," say critics.

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge has promised a change for the better. "We worry about the credibility of the system," he says. "We want to continue to refine it because we realize it has caused some anxiety.'

Here's how the system is supposed to work: The Department of Homeland Security may obtain information—or intelligence—from an agency like the FBI or CIA. That intelligence might be based on what agents are picking up through eavesdropping over phone lines or intercepted e-mail. It might also be based on documents found at a busted terrorist hideout, or through the questioning of captured suspects.

Using that information, Homeland Security may decide to raise the terror level and notify citizens and local and state governments. But raising the levels in February, March, and May this year caused unnecessary anxiety among many Americans. Also, people said they didn't know what to do when the alerts changed.

In the works is a plan to target the information to local governments, instead of blanketing the entire nation with alerts. Ridge would use a warning system that communicates directly with community officials, firehouses, police, paramedics, and other key personnel. Messages would be sent quickly to cell phones, pagers, and e-mail. The new system could be in place by the summer of 2004, said Ridge. To make the new system effective, however, Ridge said he will need more specific information on terrorist activity. "The system is designed to give us that flexibility, depending on the intelligence we get," Ridge says. "Right now, the intelligence is fairly generic."