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How Would Sociologists Design a Homeland Security Alert System?

Sociology has a science base for effective communication of risk & crisis

by Lee Herring, Public Affairs

The new U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which formally opened for business on January 24, consolidating some 170,000 government personnel from 22 agencies, is the largest modification of the federal bureaucracy since the founding of the Pentagon more than 50 years ago.

But DHS and its predecessor, the White House Office of Homeland Security, have struggled with developing an effective and credible national alert system to keep Americans informed of the likelihood of terrorist attacks against Americans. The resulting Homeland Security Alert System (HSAS) serves “to disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts to federal, state, and local authorities and to the American people.”

DHS also aspires to provide information to help Americans prepare for attacks. (See A substantial body of social science findings can be tapped to increase the efficacy of HSAS advisories especially as they are targeted to different audiences in the public and private sectors.

Color Coding

Presently, the DHS uses a simple, five-level, color-coded scale as its primary vehicle for communicating threat probability to the public. The threat level is determined by a White House analysis of a matrix of reports from security agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Security Agency. Following daily security intelligence briefings, the president ultimately decides where to position the threat level indicator.

A low threat level is labeled with the color green and a “guarded” threat level is labeled blue. Moving up the scale through the three other threat levels, the associated colors are yellow (“elevated” threat), orange (“high” threat), and red (“severe” threat). (See White House Office of Homeland Security information at

Criticisms of HSAS

Critics of the HSAS say that, among other deficiencies, the system does not offer sufficient specificity to be of use and that the color coding is confusing. DHS counters that the warning system is intended as a national alerting service, and that changes in threat status are not predicated on highly specific data but rather tap an aggregate index of threat deriving from numerous intelligence sources. Knowledgeable sources point out that the color scheme was developed on an ad hoc basis and under severe time constraints following the events of September 11, 2001.

In developing the warning scheme, DHS relied in part on a document developed by President Clinton’s National Science and Technology Council, which identified “the public and private sector R&D capability to provide early warning of natural or technological hazards that threaten the safety and well-being of our citizens.” This November 2000 report, Effective Disaster Warnings, was written by the Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems’ Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction under the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. It was “designed to assist scientists, engineers and emergency mangers in developing more accurate and more numerous warnings….” Neal Lane, Clinton’s Science Advisor, intended it as a “reference on the policy issues of implementing advanced technologies for delivering warnings….” However, missing from this mission was a focus on key social issues.

Guidance to Authorities

Critics of HSAS note that the system lacks clear advice on what specific actions people can/should take in response to changes in alert status. A primary imperative, according to research, is that “warnings should be specific with respect to the threat and the expected protective response,” according to sociologists Lee Clarke (Rutgers University-New Brunswick), author of the forthcoming Worst Cases (University of Chicago Press), and Kathleen Tierney, Director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, senior author of Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States (Joseph Henry Press, 2001).

Tierney and Clarke distilled findings on warnings and warning response from the social science literature (see accompanying sidebar) and summarized them in a concise set of recommendations that can help improve DHS warning communications. ASA is working with DHS staff and other social science organizations to ensure that relevant social research finds its way to key policymakers within DHS.

Tierney and Clarke note that there is a large body of research on risk perception and risk communication that can provide guidance as the nation attempts to better prepare the public for impending threats. The literature addresses many important topics, such as the need to design communications strategies that address issues associated with message sources, the content of emergency guidance and warnings, the channels through which information is disseminated, and the social characteristics of audiences and receivers of warnings. With respect to message content, for example, the simple “colored” homeland security warnings that are being issued to the entire nation contain no guidance on risk levels or what warning recipients should do differently.

No Fear of Crying Wolf

The literature on risk communication also provides guidance on what those charged with communicating hazard advisories and warnings should do, and what they should avoid. Research suggests, for example, that concerns about the “cry wolf” effect in issuing warnings are misplaced. People do not become inured to warnings. When the sirens blew in Britain during World War II, people consistently sought shelter, even if bombs did not fall after previous warnings. When residents of the Southeast United States are asked to evacuate because of hurricane dangers, and when those dangers do not materialize, they are no less willing to evacuate when warned of other storms. In fact, there is some evidence that people learn and benefit even from warnings that aren’t followed by actual events, because they have an opportunity to “rehearse” emergency procedures.

Effective Messages

The risk communication literature also advises against the homily that people need to hear the same risk message from the same source at all times. While messages should be consistent, mutually reinforcing, and non-contradictory, effective messages (1) are well-designed, containing all elements needed to enable people to understand, personalize, and act on the information; (2) rely on multiple channels for dissemination; and (3) recognize that different audiences vary in terms of spokesperson credibility. Risk communication and source credibility studies suggest that people believe and trust spokespersons who are similar to themselves along social dimensions.

Cultivating Trust

Leaders achieve credibility and trust through their public demeanor—including being honest and forthcoming about what they do and do not know. New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani is a case in point. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he was straightforward about what actions the city was taking and about what he did and did not know. He often said “I don’t know,” and the error he avoided was to tell people that everything was “under control.” He also did not tell people not to panic. Rather, he correctly assumed that they would respond appropriately. Communicators are credible when they speak in a straightforward and confident manner—even if what they say is that they do not know or are uncertain about particular aspects of the situation.

First Responders

Authorities should recognize that U.S. communities are perhaps the most important source of crisis response and resilience. Rather than being viewed as a management problem, as is frequently the case in planning defined by command-and-control approaches, the public should be seen as a key resource in emergencies. Decades of social science research documents that community residents are in fact the true “first responders.” Basic units of social organization—families, work groups, neighborhood associations, community-based organizations, schools, church groups, and other civil-society institutions—are the building blocks of meaningful homeland security. For example, given that 20 percent of the nation’s population is in grades K-12 most of the day, school personnel are “first responders” for a very large and important part of our population. Similarly, because working adults spend the majority of their days in workplaces, workplace-based programs should be a cornerstone of homeland security. This community-oriented, bottom-up approach to hazard management is in contrast with top-down perspectives that discount the role of the public in safety.