Saturday, April 5, 2003

The Dept of Homeland Panic

Where were you when the proto-Homeland Security Department announced the Homeland Security Advisory System. If you're like me, you were probably watching the news (or the Daily Show, whichever) and made that little scrunched up face we all get when our minds scream "Whaa?"

Okay. Ready? As of this writing, we're at threat level orange. What do you do? How do you feel? Do you even know what threat level orange means? I'll give you a hint's not quite bad enough to justify taping your house shut with plastic and duct tape. But, ironically enough, orange alert is about as effective as taping your house shut with duct tape – it's a PR and marketing joke.

And while I remain certain that the duct tape and plastic survival strategy has more to do with the Home Depot lobby than with any science surrounding chemical and biological weapons, I'm sure the Homeland Security Advisory System is a direct result of the Pantone Color System lobby.

The system is poorly conceived, from an information design perspective. And while red is generally conceived of as a "bad" color, the five color gradation from green to red is not an obvious value scale for "everything's okay" to "Oh my God!" And the text descriptions are little better. Tell me, without looking, which is worse: "Guarded" or "Elevated"? The fact that our current threat level is written, on the government sites and in the media, as Orange/High illustrates the department's understanding that we don't understand their threat system.

And even if you can keep the colors and names straight (without being a Homeland Security employee or terrorist – both likely know the system by heart) can you tell me what an Orange/High alert means? Just so you know, here's the answer, according to the DHS:
  1. Low Condition (Green). This condition is declared when there is a low risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Refining and exercising as appropriate preplanned Protective Measures;
    • Ensuring personnel receive proper training on the Homeland Security Advisory System and specific preplanned department or agency Protective Measures;
    • Institutionalizing a process to assure that all facilities and regulated sectors are regularly assessed for vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, and all reasonable measures are taken to mitigate these vulnerabilities.
  2. Guarded Condition (Blue). This condition is declared when there is a general risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Checking communications with designated emergency response or command locations;
    • Reviewing and updating emergency response procedures; Providing the public with any information that would strengthen its ability to act appropriately.
  3. Elevated Condition (Yellow). An Elevated Condition is declared when there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Increasing surveillance of critical locations;
    • Coordinating emergency plans as appropriate with nearby jurisdictions;
    • Assessing whether the precise characteristics of the threat require the further refinement of preplanned Protective Measures;
    • Implementing, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans.
  4. High Condition (Orange). A High Conditionis declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Coordinating necessarysecurity efforts with Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies or any National Guard or other appropriate armed forces organizations;
    • Taking additional precautions at public events and possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation;
    • Preparing to execute contingency procedures, such as moving to an alternate site or
      dispersing their workforce;
    • Restricting threatened facility access to essential personnel only.
  5. Severe Condition (Red). A Severe Condition reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks. Under most circumstances, the Protective Measures for a Severe Condition are not intended to be sustained for substantial periods of time.
    • Previous condition measures, and;
    • Increasing or redirecting personnel to address critical emergency needs;
    • Assigning emergency response personnel and pre-positioning and mobilizing
      specially trained teams or resources;
    • Monitoring, redirecting, or constraining transportation systems;
    • Closing public and government facilities.
So that should really clear up everything, right? Just remember to remain diligent and watchful (and whatever you do, don't ask questions!)

If the DHS was really interested in keeping the public informed and involved, it should reinvent the system to meet two requirements:
  1. It should be obvious;
  2. It should require no explanation;
Now should that be so hard? No. The military has had a system for decades upon which to model a better civilian threat warning system. You may not, after all, know what "elevated" alert means, or how worried you should be when the nation goes "yellow", but I bet you've some idea how bad things have gotten when Cheyenne Mountain announces that we've gone to DefCon 2.

Holy crap!

You don't need to know at which DefCon level the B2s take off to know that level 2 (of 1 through 5) is as bad things get before global thermonuclear war in old Mathew Broderick movie reruns. Were the Homeland Security Advisory System to adopt a more conventional system which could be intuitively understood by the public – and activated by less seemingly arbitrary standards – I think the new department would find itself better understood and more respected.

Here's our suggestion:
Cloudjammer Studio National Security Advisory System (CloudCon)
Level 5 Feelin' Fine
Level 4 Start watching more news
Level 3 Re-evaluate your trip to Kabul
Level 2 Buy the canned food and bottled water
Level 1 Holy Crap!
That should clear everything up. fb

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