We're in danger. We're surrounded by people and nations who want to wipe us off the face of the earth. As one step in keeping Americans safe, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was established. Whatever it may be doing right, it is NOT communicating the right things to Americans, and that may cost lives.
My previous post discussed how Homeland Security's insistence on using a Color-Coded Threat Level System discourages Americans from taking the threat warnings seriously. Today, let's look at that five-color threat level system--green, blue, yellow, orange, red--as a case study in dangerously bad communication--sort of a "worst practice."
GREEN = "LOW RISK"
When the threat level is green, the "citizen guidance" instructs Americans to:
- Develop a family emergency plan. Share it with family and friends, and practice the plan. Visit http://www.ready.gov/ for help creating a plan.
- Create an "Emergency Supply Kit" for your household.
- Be informed. Visit http://www.ready.gov/ or obtain a copy of "Preparing Makes Sense, Get Ready Now" by calling 1-800-BE-READY.
- Know how to shelter-in-place and how to turn off utilities (power, gas, and water) to your home.
- Examine volunteer opportunities in your community, such as Citizen Corps, Volunteers in Police Service, Neighborhood Watch or others, and donate your time.
- Consider completing an American Red Cross first aid or CPR course , or Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) course.
Let's be honest: we'll never be at the "green" threat level again. Ever. The activities are okay, but why tell people to do them in a "low risk" situation when we'll never live in one? Already this communication has an odor of ineptitude and dishonesty.
BLUE = "GUARDED RISK"
- Complete recommended steps at level green.
- Review stored disaster supplies and replace items that are outdated.
- Be alert to suspicious activity and report it to proper authorities.
So when things are "green" and there is a "low" threat risk, it's not necessary to be alert to and report suspicious activity? That should happen only when there's a "guarded risk"?
YELLOW = "ELEVATED RISK" (We have not floated below yellow since March 12, 2002.)
- Complete recommended steps at levels green and blue.
- Ensure disaster supply kit is stocked and ready. (This was part of the family checklist mentioned at the green level.)
- Check telephone numbers in family emergency plan and update as necessary. (So was this.)
- Develop alternate routes to/from work or school and practice them.
- Continue to be alert for suspicious activity and report it to authorities. (This was mentioned at the blue level, and in this level we were also instructed to complete recommened steps for the green and blue levels. Repeating information while pretending it's new information isn't inspiring. It's just irritating.)
The only new activity here is to find and practice new routes to work and school. I'll say this slowly for the Homeland Security folks: In...an...emergency...dire...enough...to...choke...traffic...routes, ...we...won't...be...trying...to...get...to...work...or...school....
ORANGE = "HIGH RISK"
- Complete recommended steps at lower levels.
- Exercise caution when traveling, (sic) pay attention to travel advisorie. (sic)
- Review your family emergency plan and make sure all family members know what to do.
- Be Patient (sic). Expect some delays, baggage searches and restrictions at public buildings.
- Check on neighbors or others that might need assistance in an emergency.
What's different here from green, blue, or yellow? Does anything here scream "high risk"? I may be a little slow, but it's beginning to dawn on me that I'm being jerked around.
RED = "SEVERE RISK"
- Complete all recommended actions at lower levels.
- Listen to local emergency management officials.
- Stay tuned to TV or radio for current information/instructions.
- Be prepared to shelter-in-place or evacuate, as instructed.
- Expect traffic delays and restrictions.
- Provide volunteer services only as requested.
- Contact your school/business to determine status of work day.
This is the red level. Severe risk. As high as she goes. Contagion-in-the-water, nukes-over-Washington, countless-dead, try-to-phone-your-loved-ones red level. I deeply resent these "citizen guidelines" that make it sound like an inconvenience. On this day we will not give a rat's star-spangled ass about traffic delays or going to work or obtaining permission to offer volunteer help.
WHY THIS MATTERS
I'm relatively sure that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his folks mean well. If they were hyping cars or personal hygiene products, it wouldn't matter that they're bullshitting us by only pretending to tell us something critical to our well-being. In fact, though, we are in danger, they are the agency charged with keeping us safe, and what are they doing? Feeding us slop and calling it good.
The military attaches heavy importance to the colored threat levels and requires specific, meaningful activities and decisions at each level. If there are also specific, meaningful--"meaningful" is a key word here--activities and decisions that everyday citizens can and should do at each threat level, we have a right to know and Homeland Security has a duty to tell us. If there aren't, they should tell us that. A little bluntness would be refreshing.
Michael Chertoff, your agency's communication makes it look as though you're trying to fool us into thinking there's a plan where there isn't. If that's NOT what you're trying to do--if you're genuinely trying to communicate lifesaving information to Americans--for God's sake find someone with a communication brain to help you do that.
Call me. Call someone else. Just get some help.