The Color of Safety

Feb. 1, 2004
After 20 days at heightened alert, the Homeland Security Advisory System was lowered from Orange to Yellow early last month. But as cities, law-enforcement

After 20 days at heightened alert, the Homeland Security Advisory System was lowered from Orange to Yellow early last month. But as cities, law-enforcement agencies, airports and others activated plans to boost security measures, many education institutions went about business as usual — and it wasn't because they were on holiday break for much of the time.

For many schools and universities, changes in the nation's color-coded advisory system are not met with any organized plan or noticeable change in operations. In fact, according to a recent survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers, more than half of schools don't have formal guidelines to follow when the advisory system's color alert is raised.

While many cite lack of funding and a sometimes misguided belief that existing security measures are adequate (even at times of a nationwide heightened alert), much of the inaction by schools can be attributed to confusion about what a rise in the color-coded system means to them. (For a look at how education institutions can decipher the color-coded system, turn to the special School Security Supplement after p. 18.)

But education administrators are not the only ones often confused and increasingly skeptical of the federal government's attempt at alerting the public of potential terror threats. Even federal lawmakers responsible for overseeing homeland-security issues are pushing for changes in the system, proposing the “one-size-fits-all” warnings be eliminated in favor of warnings based on specific regional or industry threats.

One state that has done an impressive job in adapting the national color-coded system to better suit its needs is the same one that was the primary target on Sept. 11, 2001. New York State Homeland Security System for Schools is an extensive document that provides the state's schools with specific guidelines to follow based on the national color-coded system.

Of particular note is the New York system's specification that “a red alert (most severe) will be declared only in the event of an imminent, site specific threat…Not all areas of the state will be affected the same in the case of a statewide red alert.”

Similar flexibility needs to be adopted by the federal system for its higher-level alerts, tying warnings to specific regions, industries and/or threats. If not, we risk people tuning out or ignoring warnings when they are issued.


New York's Homeland Security System for Schools' color-coded alert system and recommended actions:


Complete level Orange. Close school before it opens, close school while in session, lock-down procedures, short-term shelter in place, or transfer to alternate location or emergency shelter.


Complete level Yellow. Limit access to facilities, review facility use and evaluate field trips. Activate lockout procedures.


Complete level Blue. Review building permits; confer with authorities for further action.


Increase surveillance; consider restricting parking near buildings.


Continue normal operations. Conduct building safety audit, review building safety plans and practice emergency drills.

Source: New York State Homeland Security System for Schools (

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