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With the completion of the Task Force’s Report on the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) now done we have a pretty good idea of how of the oft-maligned terror warning system is going to be restructured.  For those looking to see the five-color warning system done away with they will find themselves disappointed.  The Task Force believes an alert system should remain in place for terror warnings, but rather than stick with the current five color arrangement, they recommend going to three levels.

This is where Task Force’s report and the overall language and attitude of much of the greater homeland security community come together and speak very plainly and definitively.  While it’s nice to think that one day we won’t have to worry about sympathizers of Al Qaeda boarding subway cars with backpacks full of nails and TATP, or Tim McVeigh-types filling vehicles full of explosives ready to detonate it at a particular moment – the hard, cold and sober fact is we live in a world where incidents of these type are a reality that can occur anywhere at anytime.   No longer are these actions something that can occur in the Middle East; they have occurred here and will likely and tragically happen again on US soil.

Rather than put up a smokescreen of rhetoric, lollipops and roses perspective about the terror threat going away (the green and blue colors of the current HSAS system), the Task Force stated the obvious – we are never going to be that nation again.

If you read Tom Ridge’s recently issued book and understand how the existing HSAS system came about, you can appreciate and respect what our nation’s homeland security pioneers were trying to do in those immediate weeks following the 9/11 and anthrax attacks.  The fact is the system they developed then served its purpose, but we’re a whole lot smarter about terrorism than we were eight years ago.  We’re also a whole lot smarter and more adapt at communicating with one another than we were eight years ago, too.  Between Twitter, Facebook, Linked In (all systems that DHS, FEMA, national media and individual citizens use today) we are connected in ways we’ve never thought possible.

That’s where the Task Force’s lays down some clear foundations that Ridge and the early national homeland security team never had the fortune of having.  These include:
1)    We are and will remain a nation on a “Guarded” status in terms of terror for the foreseeable future;
2)    The HSAS System has to be as adaptive to the technologies and mechanisms of communications as the society that uses them to go about every day business and life;
3)    Any alert system has to target two constituencies – the public at large and institutions (government, private sector, etc.)
4)    The HSAS should have a dedicated staff to maintain, tune and exercise the advisory system to its target constituencies; and,
5)    The HSAS should be integrated into the national homeland infrastructure (e.g. state, local and tribal EOCs, fusion centers, JTTFs, etc.) to assure understanding and uniformity of message and response actions.

In the eight years since 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, we are finally beginning to put the hard-earned lessons into policies, protocols and operations that can better guide current and future homeland leaders of every sector.  The Task Force’s work has set an important foundation to build upon. With some additional time and resources, their work will hopefully lead to the formation of an HSAS that has public credibility, understanding and most importantly – respect.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More