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David Ropeik

David Ropeik

Posted: November 29, 2010 08:18 AM

What color worried are you today? No-worries Green? Freaked-out Red? A-little-nervous Yellow? Not for long. The color-coded chart of our fears is about to become an historical footnote, a relic that teaches some important lessons about risk perception, terrorism, and public health and safety. Hopefully the new system will consider some key elements missing from the simplistic Green-Blue-Yellow-Orange-Red.

The Department of Homeland Security, after a couple years of study (including requesting input from various experts -- as consultant in risk perception and risk communication I was honored to be one), has finally sent to the White House a recommendation to get rid of the color-coded terrorism alert system. It will be replaced with what effectively has been in use for years, a more descriptive and situation-specific system that is as temporal as the threat requires. It will trigger pre-planned actions by governments and business, and alert the public, when security needs to be raised, and notify those systems and us to relax if and when the threat passes. We won't stay "yellow," as we have since 2006, the last time the system spiked red when intelligence indicated plots to use liquids to bomb planes. (Air travel has stayed a more-at-risk Orange.)

The new more specific system won't tell us all how worried to be. Sure, Americans all live in America, but mostly we live in specific places that are the specific targets of plots to bomb a Christmas Tree lighting (Portland Oregon this past weekend) or blow up a skyscraper in Dallas or a federal courthouse in Illinois or subways trains in NY (2009). The new system will give us details, or at least as many as possible based on what intelligence is telling us and without giving away the "means and methods" by which the information has been gathered. Like the October 3 State Department warning to Americans flying to Europe when intelligence learned of an increased risk of terrorist attack on certain high-profile tourist destinations. Everybody in America didn't need to go all code orange. Only travelers to specific places needed to be aware. Details help us put the risk, and how afraid we feel, in perspective.

I hope the new system also includes something which that October 3rd alert included. It gave people something they could do. When people are told they are at greater risk, the warning should almost always suggest to people what they can do, to provide a sense of control. A feeling of control is reassuring, and can change knee-jerk unthinking fear into prudent caution. The October 3rd warning suggested that U.S. citizens not share their travel plans with outsiders, and "...be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling." Simple things, but self-efficacy. A warning for travelers to the Commonwealth Games in India this past summer went further; "U.S. citizens are advised to monitor local news reports and consider the level of security present when visiting public places, including religious sites." Most experts in risk communication strongly advise that alerts and warnings include something that the threatened populace can do, even if it's just to stay up-to-date on the latest information.

Simply going from Yellow to Orange doesn't give us specifics, nor does it tell us what we can do. Both of these shortcomings meant that the color-coded system did too little to combat the terror of terrorism, the be-afraid effect that alters how worried we are and how we behave. After 9/11 we were so freaked out about flying that many more of us drove, and the death toll on America's roads rose; it was roughly 1,000 people higher than expected in the ensuing three months, according to one study. It is fair to add most of these excess road fatalities to the overall death toll of the 9/11 attacks.

Further, several studies of people in New York City found several serious stress-related health effects years after the attacks, even among those who had no direct experience with the attacks themselves, including elevated rates of cardiovascular disease (stress -- higher blood pressure), and infectious diseases (chronic stress weakens your immune system). Constantly feeling a-little-worried-Yellow, or elevated-danger-level-Orange, is not good for your health.

The color-coded system, a relic of a more frightened time, was not initially intended for the public. The system, was, and must remain, a way to quickly notify government and private public safety systems across the country to activate certain plans and procedures. Because we were all afraid after 9/11, and the anthrax attacks that followed within weeks, the system for internal government use was quickly and crudely adapted to meet public concerns. But it was inadequate, and change is overdue. And those changes should include tools to help the people in "the homeland" (we never called it that until we were afraid post 9/11) feel more secure. The Department of Homeland Security, which we rely on to protect us from the actual attacks by the bad guys, can also help with the psychological part of homeland 'security", how secure we feel, which has a direct impact on our health. The alert system is an opportunity to integrate an understanding of risk perception, and risk communication, into the goal of overall risk management. We should hope the decision makers at the White House keep that in mind as they consider the final details of the new system.

 
 
 

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