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Today's threat level: yellow

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 20, 2002

"Whether you color it yellow, green, black or blue, I don't know whether it will make that much difference."

—Stan Hankins

The current nationwide terrorism threat level is yellow. But what's it mean?

Not much to many people.

"I paid attention when the color codes came out," said Cathy McCann, who runs the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

McCann has been directly responding to people's needs since immediately after Sept. 11, managing a huge influx of material donations among other challenges.

McCann confessed she now pays little attention to the once widely publicized color codes. "We're worrying about people whose lives are falling apart," she said, adding that, as far as she's concerned, "it's another government initiative that gets put out without education for the public."

At this point, McCann said, "I know red is bad."

When the Office of Homeland Security announced its Homeland Security Advisory System, the colors ended up serving as more of a catalyst for public anxiety than public preparation, said McCann and other disaster responders from voluntary and faith-based agencies.

When the colors were released -- quickly followed by announcements from public officials that another terrorist attack was imminent -- the public began to feel informed just enough to be scared but unsure how to prepare.

"It started to feel like hysteria. It was pretty palpable," said Stan Hankins of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), adding it was reminiscent of "the days of the Cold War when people were digging holes in their backyard and building bomb shelters."

Digging bomb shelters in the face of a nuclear threat might have been pretty futile, but people want to feel they can do something proactive to protect themselves. The homeland security advisory system doesn't suggest any action the general public can take.

Add to that the news of massive wild fires in the western states, serious flooding in Alaska, and drought-gripped farmers across the country, and the impact of the daily color code fades in intensity.

To make things even more confusing, with the smog that has blanketed the East Coast this summer, "code red" now means bad air to most people there.

"I just haven't paid much attention to it. That's kind of the way the disaster business goes," said Hankins.

Nonetheless Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and other groups are considering including information about the color codes in future training for churches. Leaders from a church used during a mass evacuation of a large population center, for example, could find such information useful. "At least it wouldn't hurt," said Hankins.

The meaning of the homeland security colors could be added to training that deals with preparation for natural disasters, he suggested. "If they can prepare for an evacuation for a natural disaster maybe they can prepare for a terrorist-related one."

While the average citizen might pay no attention to current threat levels, if there was a change in the level, emergency managers would be "apprised of it instantly," said Jarrod Neal Bernstein, spokesperson for the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Bernstein's office is in close contact with the Office of Homeland Security, and information comes in daily through "a multitude of people," he said. As part of the staff's "what-if" scenario training, they include practice in raised terrorist threat levels.

At least one state, Colorado, is considering ways to better communicate information about threat levels to the general public.

The state is planning to expand its regional information sharing system (RISS), an Internet-based bulletin board already used by police. "We're looking into a classified RISS version, one that sends messages via cellular phones that could notify emergency responders to log onto RISS," said Turner. "We're also looking at a non-classified system for industry and the media."

Eventually, the public could also have its own RISS that included information about threat levels -- and maybe some practical suggestions for what to do. Until then, the public awaits -- some very anxiously -- for more user-friendly information.

"Whether you color it yellow, green, black or blue, I don't know whether it will make that much difference," said Hankins. "Terrorists can hit anywhere, anytime."

The Office of Homeland Security offers the following definitions for the colors in the Homeland Security Advisory System:


Low risk of terrorist attacks. The following protective measures may be applied: refining and exercising preplanned protective measures; ensuring personnel receive training on HSAS, departmental, or agency-specific protective measures; and regularly assessing facilities for vulnerabilities and taking measures to reduce them.


General risk of terrorist attack. In addition to the previously outlined protective measures, the following may be applied: checking communications with designated emergency response or command locations; reviewing and updating emergency response procedures; and providing the public with necessary information.


Significant risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the previously outlined protective measures, the following may be applied: increasing surveillance of critical locations; coordinating emergency plans with nearby jurisdictions; assessing further refinement of protective measures within the context of the current threat information; and implementing, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans.


High risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the previously outlined protective measures, the following may be applied: coordinating necessary security efforts with armed forces or law enforcement agencies; taking additional precaution at public events; preparing to work at an alternate site or with a dispersed workforce; and restricting access to essential personnel only.


Severe risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the previously outlined protective measures, the following may be applied: assigning emergency response personnel and pre-positioning specially trained teams; monitoring, redirecting or constraining transportation systems; closing public and government facilities; and increasing or redirecting personnel to address critical emergency needs.

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