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Threat Level Semantics: Duck and Cover?

2009/07/28

Recently, there has been a lot of attention to the need and means by which societies communicate threat level assessments. Orange or red terrorist level? Stage 4 or 5 or 6 pandemic? In ancient times, many civilizations relied on something akin to beacons and bonfires: if the fire was lit (and it was dark out,) then you saw it and knew what to do. You probably knew who lit the fire and why. It was a very binary alert system. Today we have five and six level systems designed to be short hand systems to communicate a more complex set of information and guide an appropriate response from a diverse group of actors. The World Health Organization (WHO) has six phases to indicate the level of pandemic alert. The US Department of Homeland Security has five color codes to indicate the level of terrorist threat. But are we really any clearer than before about the nature of the threat and best response?

Both systems of threat communication have been subject to debate and criticism. The WHO system of pandemic alert phases has precise, quantitative criteria for moving from one level of alert to the next. For example, in Phase 3 “ an animal or human-animal virus has caused sporadic cases or small clusters of disease in people, but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks. Today, we are at level 6, the highest level of threat, indicating the existence of a global pandemic. The criteria regarding disease transmission make this the appropriate classification. However, the mortality rate of the current H1N1 virus is quite low in the overall population and thus this flu pandemic does not approach the seriousness many feel a level 6 implies. Many leaders have found the reaction of some countries to be extreme and have cautioned against travel restrictions and other social distancing actions. Others worry that the WHO system could cause some to ignore a future, more deadly warning.

The current WHO phase of pandemic alert is 6.

Pandemic influenza phases

Back at the ranch, the Homeland Security Advisory System of green blue, yellow, orange and redHomeland Security Advisory System “is intended to create a common vocabulary, context and structure for an ongoing national discussion about the nature of threats that confront the homeland and the appropriate measures that should be taken in response. It seeks to inform and facilitate decisions appropriate to different levels of government and to private citizens at home and at work.” (Homeland Security Directive-3, March 11, 2002). Recently, this system has come into question in the US Congress as well as other places. Some wonder whether the threat level will ever drop below “yellow” for elevated risk. Is it an objective or a politically influenced assessment? “Threat Conditions shall be assigned by the Attorney General in consultation with the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security” (Homeland Security Directive-3, March 11, 2002). And, more importantly, how clear is the response to a change in level? Do you know what to do? I certainly don’t. And right now the threat level is higher for air travel than it is for the country at large. Hmmm.

Is either of these threat assessment systems better at communicating risk and intended response than the other? Should there be a comparative evaluation? Do either provide greater semantic value? Is some other means better?

Is semantic confusion threatening the threat assessments?

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