David Olive asks a fair question – why did it take the Department of Homeland Security so long to dump the color-coded alert system? Good question.
I first called on the department to dump the idea in 2004. Established by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3 in March 2002, the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) was created to facilitate communication and coordination regarding the threat of terrorist attack against the nation; designed to convey the threat level in a simple, straightforward fashion, with blue signifying that the national threat level is low, green guarded, yellow elevated, orange high, and red severe.
It was a bad idea because it failed to meet the basic criteria of an effective risk communication tool – the capacity to deliver a message that was understandable, actionable and credible. To be fair, the system was never intended to serve as a public information tool. It was primarily envisioned as a way to synchronize preparedness across the federal, state, local and tribal level. But it soon started popping up everywhere, and that was when it rapidly started to lose legitimacy.
HSAS was also bad because it was a “blunt” instrument. When it was employed, it cost a lot. According to some estimates, every time the national threat level is raised to orange, the federal government incurs an expense of $1 billion per week.
Fair enough, it too long to dump. Even after the Homeland Security Secretary empanelled a task force to make recommendations, it took awhile. In September 2009, the task force recommended making changes. The changes were made – about a year and half later.
Still, getting rid of it was a responsible act of stewardship by the department – better late than never.
The next big task the department can take on is the state of its Homeland Security planning. The department came up with 15 disaster scenarios and envisioned nested response plans for each across the whole of the federal government, as well as state and local governments. In this manner, the nation would have a playbook for disaster response that would cover a wide range of dangers. That never happened. Nor did the department’s integrated planning system ever get off the ground.
Without a plan – the lifeline of a guiding idea – much of the money we dump into preparedness, training and equipment is wasted.
If the secretary jumps on this one, maybe in two years the department can check off that reform too. That’s not meant as a criticism. Getting anything done in government can be agonizingly difficult. All I am saying is the problem isn’t going away. You might as well get started. That’s how things in Washington get done.