Homeland Security Advisory System: Possible Issues for Congressional Oversight
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
The Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), established on March 12, 2002, is a color-
coded terrorist threat warning system administered by the Department of Homeland Security
(DHS). The system, which federal departments and agencies are required to implement and use,
provides recommended protective measures for federal departments and agencies to prevent,
prepare for, mitigate against, and respond to terrorist attacks.
DHS disseminates HSAS terrorist threat warnings to federal departments, state and local
agencies, the public, and private-sector entities. DHS, however, only provides protective
measures for federal departments. This dissemination of warnings is conducted through multiple
communication systems and public announcements.
HSAS has five threat levels: low, guarded, elevated, high, and severe. From March 2002 to the
present, the HSAS threat level has been no lower than elevated, raised to high seven times, and
raised to severe once. The first time it was raised to high was on September 10, 2002, due to the
fear of terrorist attacks on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The most
recent time it was raised to high was on July 7, 2005, due to terrorist bombings of the London
mass transit systems. DHS raised the threat level for mass transit systems only. The only time
HSAS has been raised to severe (red) was on August 10, 2006, due to a terrorist plan to bomb
flights originating in the United Kingdom. DHS raised the threat level for the aviation sector only.
In the 109th Congress, the House of Representative’s Committee on Government Reform’s
Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations held a hearing
on the HSAS, its threat codes, and public response to it. This hearing focused on the information
DHS issued the public the seven times the HSAS threat level was raised from “yellow” to
While the need for terrorist threat warnings seems to be widely acknowledged, there are
numerous issues associated with HSAS and its effects on states, localities, the public, and the
private sector. These issues include the following:
• vagueness of warnings;
• lack of specific protective measures for state and local governments, the public,
and the private sector;
• dissemination of warnings to states, localities, the public, and the private sector;
• coordination of HSAS with other federal warning systems; and
• cost of threat level changes.
This report will be updated as congressional or executive actions warrant.
Past Congressional Action.........................................................................................................4
Issues ............................................................................................................................................... 4
Vagueness of Warnings.............................................................................................................5
Lack of Specific Protective Measures for State and Local Governments, the Public,
and the Private Sector............................................................................................................6
Communication of Terrorist Threats to State and Local Governments, the Public, and
the Private Sector...................................................................................................................8
Coordination of HSAS with Other Warning Systems...............................................................9
Cost of Threat Level Changes.................................................................................................12
Table 1. HSAS Threat Levels..........................................................................................................2
Table 2. Homeland Security Advisory Threat Level Changes.......................................................15
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................17
n March 12, 2002, Governor Tom Ridge—then Director of the White House Office of
Homeland Security (OHS), and formerly Secretary of the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS)—announced the establishment of the Homeland Security Advisory O
System (HSAS). The HSAS is designed to measure and evaluate terrorist threats and
communicate these threats to federal, state, and local governments, the public, and the private
sector in a timely manner. Although HSAS is a nationwide system, it can also be used at a smaller 1
scale to warn of threats against a state, city, critical infrastructure, or industry. From inception to
August 2004, the HSAS has been raised from “elevated” to “high” seven times, and raised to
severe once. (see Table 2).
The HSAS was developed by OHS using information collected from state and local first
responders, business leaders, and the public. Following the March 12 announcement, the general
public and the private sector were asked to provide comments on the system, with a deadline for 2
comments on April 26, 2002.
Within DHS, the Undersecretary for Information Assurance and Infrastructure Protection—as
head of the Information Assurance and Infrastructure Protection directorate (IAIP)—is
responsible for administering the HSAS. Specifically, IAIP is responsible for providing, in
coordination with other agencies of the federal government, specific warning information and
advice about appropriate protective measures and countermeasures to state and local government 3
agencies and authorities, the private sector, other entities, and the public.
The advisory system is based on five threat levels: low, guarded, elevated, high, and severe. Each
level, with its corresponding identification color, indicates protective measures mandatory for 4
federal departments and agencies.
1 Office of the White House Press Secretary, “Remarks by Governor Ridge Announcing Homeland Security Advisory
System,” press release, (Washington: March 12, 2002). Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/
03/20020312-14.html,visited March 15, 2003.
3 P.L. 107-296, Title II, subtitle A, sec. 201(d)(7).
4 U.S. President (Bush), “Homeland Security Advisory System,” Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3, March
11, 2002. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/03/20020312-5.html, visited June 3, 2003.
Table 1. HSAS Threat Levels
Threat Risk of Terrorist Protective Measures
GREEN Low - Refine preplanned protective measures
Low - Ensure personnel trained on HSAS and preplanned protective measures
- Institutionalize a process for assuring all facilities are assessed for
vulnerabilities and measures are taken to mitigate these vulnerabilities
BLUE General - Check emergency response communications
Guarded - Review and update emergency response procedures
- Provide information to public that would strengthen its ability to react to an
YELLOW Significant - Increase surveillance of critical locations
Elevated - Coordinate emergency plans with other federal, state, and local facilities
- Assess the threat and refine protective measures as necessary
- Implement emergency response plans
ORANGE High - Coordinate security efforts with federal, state, and local law enforcement
- Take additional protective measures at public events, changing venues, or
consider cancelling if necessary
- Prepare to execute contingency operations
- Restrict facility access to essential personnel
RED Severe - Increase or redirect personnel to address critical emergency needs
Severe - Assign emergency response personnel and mobilize specially trained teams
- Monitor, and redirect transportation systems
- Close public and government facilities
Source: U.S. President (Bush), “Homeland Security Advisory System,” Homeland Security Presidential Directive
3, March 11, 2002. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/03/20020312-5.html, visited Jun.
DHS receives threat information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Drug Enforcement Agency
(DEA), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), and 5
other agencies. DHS uses this information to determine what terrorist threat level to set.
Assigning a threat condition involves a variety of considerations, among which are the following:
• To what degree is the threat information credible?
• To what degree is the threat information corroborated?
5 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Threats & Protection: Synthesizing and Disseminating Information,”
http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/theme_home6.jsp, visited June 3, 2003; Office of the White House Press Secretary,
“Fact Sheet: Strengthening Intelligence to Better Protect America,” press release, January 28, 2003. Available at
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030128-12.html, visited March 4, 2004.
• To what degree is the threat specific and imminent?
• How grave are the potential consequences of the threat?6
The DHS Secretary decides to raise or lower the threat level in consultation with the Homeland 7
Security Council. When the decision to change the threat level is made, DHS sends an electronic
notification to state homeland security centers and to federal, state, and local agencies via the 8
National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS). If circumstances and time
permit, the DHS Secretary or his representative makes an advance conference call to alert
governors, state homeland security advisors, and mayors of selected cities that the terrorism threat
level has been changed and that electronic notification is about to be sent.
Homeland Security Council Membership
Secretary of Homeland Security
Secretary of the Treasury
Secretary of Defense
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Secretary of Transportation
Director of Office Management and Budget
Director of Central Intelligence
Director of Federal Bureau of Investigation
Director of Federal Emergency Management Agency
Chief of Staff to the President
Chief of Staff to the Vice President
Source: Executive Office of the President, “Fact Sheet: Homeland Security Council,” press release, Oct. 29, 2001.
Following the first conference call and electronic notification via NLETS, DHS makes a second
conference call to as many state and local law enforcement associations as can be reached.
Following the second conference call, DHS initiates a secure call using the Business Roundtable’s
Critical Emergency Operations Communications Link (CEO COM LINK) to notify chief 9
executive officers of the nation’s top businesses and industries. They are asked to dial into a
secure conference call, and after each CEO goes through a multi-step authentication process to 10
ensure security, DHS or other federal officials brief them on developments and threats.
6 U.S. President (Bush), “Homeland Security Advisory System,” Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3, March
11, 2002. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/03/20020312-5.html, visited June 3, 2003.
7 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Threats & Protection: Advisory System,” http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/
display?theme=29, visited May 12, 2003.
8 U.S. Congress, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, State and Local Homeland Security Challenges, unprinted
hearing of 108th Cong., 1st sess., May 1, 2003.
9 CEO COM LINK is a secure telecommunications network that is activated during national crises and threats. Due to
the sensitive nature of CEO COM LINK, a list of businesses and industries that participate in the system is not publicly
10 Business Roundtable, “Questions and Answers on CEO COM LINK,” available at http://www.brtable.org/
document.cfm/760, visited May 12, 2003.
Following the conference call via CEO COM LINK, DHS makes a public announcement through
a press conference. Finally, critical infrastructure associations and other business groups are 11
Several bills were introduced in the 109th Congress that addressed administration of the HSAS or
alert notification of federal, state, and local entities; the private sector; and the public. Some of 121314
these included H.R. 2101, S. 1753, and H.R. 5001. H.R. 2101 proposed to require DHS to
establish a telephone alert network to warn the public of imminent or current emergencies caused
by terrorist incidents and disasters. The warning would have provided information on appropriate 15
protective measures. S. 1753 proposed to establish a National Alert System administered by a
National Alert Office. The National Alert Office would have been established within the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Alert System would have provided a 16
public alert on national, regional, and local emergencies requiring a public response. H.R. 5001
would have required the DHS Undersecretary for Information and Analysis to implement changes
to HSAS. The proposed changes included the requirement for every HSAS alert to be
accompanied by information on the threat and appropriate protective measures. The HSAS
warning would have been limited in scope for every warning to a specific region, locality, or
economic sector believed to be at risk. Finally, H.R. 5001 would have required DHS to use some 17
means of warning the nation without the use of color designations.
Since the creation of the HSAS, a number of issues have arisen, among which are: the vagueness
of warnings disseminated by the system; the system’s lack of protective measures recommended
for state and local governments, and the public; the perceived inadequacy of disseminating threats
to state and local governments, the public, and the private sector; and how best to coordinate th
HSAS with other existing warning systems. In the 109 Congress, the House of Representative’s
Committee on Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and
International Relations held a hearing on the HSAS, its threat codes, and public response to it.
This hearing focused on the information DHS issued the public the seven times the HSAS threat 18
level was raised from “yellow” to “orange.” These issues and pertinent oversight options
available to Congress are discussed below.
11 U.S. Congress, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, State and Local Homeland Security Challenges, May 1,
12 H.R. 2101, “To Amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to Direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to Develop
and Implement the READICall Emergency Alert System,” introduced by Honorable Kendrick Meek, May 4, 2005.
13 S. 1753, “Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act,” introduced by Honorable Jim DeMint, September 22, 2005.
14 H.R. 5001, “Homeland Security Information Sharing Enhancement Act of 2006,” introduced by Honorable Rob
Simmons, March 16, 2006.
15 H.R. 2101, Sec. 510.
16 S. 1753, Sec. 102.
17 H.R. 5001, Sec. 3.
18 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats,
and International Relations, Homeland Security Advisory System: Threat Codes and Public Responses, March 16, 2004.
The HSAS threat level has been raised seven times from “yellow” to “orange” since its activation
on March 12, 2002, and once to “red” on August 10, 2006. With each change, the Attorney
General or DHS Secretary cited intelligence information but offered little specificity, except on
August 1, 2004, when former DHS Secretary Ridge identified financial institutions in New York,
Washington, DC, and New Jersey as being targeted by Al Qaeda. The only other time any
specifics were given on possible terrorist attack targets was on February 7, 2003, when former
DHS Secretary Ridge cited intelligence reports suggesting Al Qaeda attacks on apartment 19
buildings, hotels, and other soft skin targets. But in this case, no region, state, or city was
identified as possible locations of attacks. Moreover, DHS has never explained the sources and 20
quality of intelligence upon which the threat levels were based.
Some observers have asserted that when federal government officials announce a new warning 21
about terrorist attacks, the threats are too vague. The vagueness that characterized the eight
increases in the threat condition in the past two years has raised concerns that the public may
begin to question the authenticity of the HSAS threat level. Former Secretary Ridge told reporters
on June 6, 2003, that DHS is worried about the credibility of the system. He said that the system 22
needs to be further refined.
Questions about the credibility of the threat, say other observers, might cause the public to
wonder how to act or whether to take any special action at all. Some observers maintain that,
without specific terrorist threat information, there is no basis for formulating a clear, easily 23
understood public announcement of what appropriate protective measures to take. Others assert 24
that the continued lack of specific information arguably can lead to complacency.
DHS officials cite the lack of specificity in intelligence as the reason for a lack of detailed
information when the threat level is changed. Former Secretary Ridge has been quoted saying that
the intelligence gathered so far has been generic; but he maintained that DHS, and the federal 25
intelligence community that provides information about terrorist threats will improve.
19 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Press Secretary, “Threat Level Raised to Orange,” press
release, February 7, 2003. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=459, visited March 4, 2004.
20 Eunice Moscoso, “Government Hikes Terror Alert Status to ‘High’,” Cox News Service, September 10, 2002, sec.
Washington, General News. “Threats and Responses,” New York Times, September 11, 2002, p. A12. U.S. Department
of Homeland Security, Office of Press Secretary, “Statement by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Raising
Threat Level,” press release, May 20, 2003, available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=741, visited
June 4, 2003. Allyson Price, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Congressional Liaison, telephone conversation
with author, June 20, 2003.
21 Dan Barry, and Al Baker, “Security Tighter in New York After Vague Terrorist Threat,” New York Times, May 22,
2002. Philip Shenon, “Suicide Attacks Certain in U.S., Mueller Warns,” New York Times, May 21, 2002.
22 John Mintz, “Ridge Seeking Fewer Changes in Terror Alerts,” Washington Post, June 6, 2003, sec. p. A11.
23 Ross Kerber, “The Pallette of Warning Terror-Alert System Called Inadequate,” The Boston Globe, May 31, 2003,
Business section, p. C1.
24 David A. Fahrenthold, “This Time, Orange Alert Seems Less So,” Washington Post, May 22, 2003, p. B2.
Option 1: Status Quo. Congress may view the evolution of the process, and decisions relating to it
are best left to the Department. The lack of specificity may be due to the need to protect
intelligence sources or a desire by DHS to issue warnings when threat information is generic, but
nonetheless credible. Maintaining the status quo places the burden of responding to complaints
about the vagueness of HSAS warnings and the critiques of DHS’s perceived inability to give
adequate terrorist attack warnings on the Department.
Option 2: Provide General Warnings. Due to the reported misunderstanding of HSAS threat
levels, and the system’s lack of recommended protective measures for state and local agencies,
the public, and private-sector entities, Congress could consider directing DHS to issue general
warnings concerning the threat of terrorist attacks without using the HSAS to notify state and
local governments, the public, and the private sector. General warnings via public statements, in
coordination with HSAS warnings to the federal government, would ensure that notices of
terrorist threats are issued to state and local governments, the public, and the private sector. DHS
chose to provide general warnings on September 4, 2003, and November 21, 2003. On September
4, 2003, DHS cited recent federal interagency reviews of information that raised concerns about
possible Al Qaeda plans to attack the U.S. and U.S. interests overseas. This general warning listed
aviation, critical infrastructure, WMD, and soft target threats, however, no specifics were given 26
on possible location or type of attacks. Another general warning was issued on November 21,
interests during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. These reports suggested Al Qaeda remained
interested in using commercial aircraft as weapons against critical infrastructure; however, no 27
location of possible attacks was specified. This approach would address the concerns of some
who have asserted that the HSAS causes misunderstanding at the state and local level, but it
would not address the issue raised by those who say DHS does not give enough specificity in its
terrorist attack warnings.
Option 3: Increase Specificity of Warnings. Were Congress to decide that the terrorist warnings
issued by DHS are too vague and cause complacency in state and local agencies, the public, and
the private sector, it might instruct DHS to use the HSAS to provide specific warnings to targeted
federal facilities, regions, states, localities, and private sector industries to the extent that is
possible. DHS has said that its goal is to have the capability to issue high alerts to designated 28
cities, geographical regions, industry, or critical infrastructure. This approach arguably would
address the concerns about the perceived vagueness of HSAS warnings. One could argue that
DHS is getting better at providing specificity with the latest alert issued on August 1, 2004.
The HSAS provides a set of protective measures for each threat condition, but these protective
measures are identified only for federal agencies. DHS only recommends protective measures for
26 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Press Secretary, “DHS Advisory to Security Personnel, No
Change to Threat Level,” press release, (Washington: September 4, 2003). Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/
display?content=1442, visited March 8, 2004.
27 Ibid., “Statement by the Department of Homeland Security on Continued Al Qaida Threats,” press release,
November 21, 2003. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=3017, visited March 8, 2004.
28 David A. Fahrenthold, “This Time, Orange Alert Seems Less So,” Washington Post, May 22, 2003, p. B2.
states, localities, the public, or the private sector, however, the recommended protective measures
are the same ones issued to federal agencies. These recommended protective measures provide no
specificity for states, localities, the public, or the private sector.
HSAS silence with regard to protective measures for the public, the private sector, and state and
local governments has drawn the attention of some interested observers. Early on, William B.
Berger, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, testified before the Senate
Governmental Affairs Committee that the lack of defined response protocols for state and local 29
governments was an area of concern among local law enforcement agencies.
Citing what some contend is a lack of DHS guidance on protective measures, non-federal entities
are beginning to fill the perceived void. For example, the American Red Cross recommends
protective measures for individuals, families, neighborhoods, schools and businesses at each of 30
the HSAS threat levels. Further, the State of Maryland has adopted the American Red Cross 31
Without federal guidance, some cities have adopted the following types of protective measures
when the HSAS threat condition is raised to “orange”:
• Surveillance cameras are activated.
• Law enforcement officers are not granted time off.
• Port security patrols are increased.
• Law enforcement officers are required to carry biological/chemical protective
• First responders are placed on alert.
• Mass transit authorities broadcast warnings and instructions.
• Mass transit law enforcement officers increase patrols.
• Law enforcement agencies make security checks in sensitive areas, such as 32
bridges, shopping centers, religious establishments, and courthouses.
Option 1: Status Quo. The HSAS was designed for federal government use and Congress may
deem the system adequate for the federal government. This approach can encourage states and
localities to conduct threat and vulnerability assessments that would then assist in the
development of specific protective measures geared to each state and locality’s homeland security
29 U.S. Congress, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Communities and Homeland Security, unprinted hearing of
the 107th Cong., 2nd sess., December 11, 2001.
30 American Red Cross, “American Red Cross Homeland Security Advisory System Recommendations for Individuals,
Families, Neighborhoods, Schools, and Businesses,” http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster/beprepared/hsas.html,
visited June 3, 2003.
31 Maryland Emergency Management Agency, “Overview of the Maryland Threat Alert System and Guidance for
Citizens, Schools, and Businesses,” available at http://www.mdsp.org/downloads/alert_public_info.pdf, visited June 10,
32 David A. Fahrenthold, “This Time Orange Alert Seems Less So,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2003, p. B2-3.
needs. On the other hand, this approach might cause confusion among states and localities in their
attempts to prepare for terrorist attacks without federal guidance on protective measures.
Option 2: Federal Guidelines for State and Local Protective Measures. If Congress decided that
there were a need for more guidance for states, localities, the public, and the private sector, it
could either encourage DHS to establish HSAS protective measure guidance for states, localities,
the public, and the private sector, or it could enact legislation mandating these activities. These
protective measures could match the federal government preparedness and response activities
identified in the HSAS. This approach could provide federal government guidance on how to be
prepared for and mitigate against a terrorist attack. A list of general protective measures for states,
localities, the public, and the private sector may not, however, be as effective as state and locally
devised protective measures.
DHS uses a variety of communications systems to provide terrorist threat warnings to states,
localities, the public, and the private sector. These systems include, for an example, conference
calls, public announcements, CEO COM LINK, and NLETS, but DHS has no single
communication system it uses to issue HSAS terrorist warnings.
On April 30, 2003, Jeffery Horvath, chief of the Dover, Delaware police department told the
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that his department has never received any official
notification of a change of HSAS threat condition and has relied on the news media for this
information. Michael J. Chitwood, chief of the Portland, Maine police department reiterated this
point, and specifically identified the Cable News Network (CNN) as the news medium through
which he receives notifications of changes in the HSAS threat level. He added that he received
official notification from state authorities eight hours later. Fire chief Edward P. Plaugher of
Arlington County, Virginia, also identified CNN as the primary source for notification of changes 33
in the HSAS threat level.
When testifying before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, former DHS Secretary
Ridge said that the process for notifying state, and local agencies and authorities of a change in 34
the HSAS threat condition needs improvement.
The public is alerted to a change in HSAS threat condition through the news media, following a
public announcement from DHS or media leak of the information. There is no Emergency Alert
System (EAS) type communication activated to alert the public to a change in threat condition, so 35
the public is not informed of the change until they monitor a public news source.
33 U.S. Congress, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Homeland Security and First Responders, 108th Cong., 1st
sess., April 30, 2003.
34 U.S. Congress, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, State and Local Homeland Security Challenges, May 1,
35 For information on the EAS, see CRS Report RL32527, The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and All-Hazard
Warnings, by Linda K. Moore.
Private sector alerts are through systems like CEO COM LINK and conference calls. DHS uses
CEO COM LINK to notify private sector entities that participate in the system, and then makes
calls to other critical infrastructure and business associations. This arguably results in a de facto
prioritization of alerted private sector entities, which could result in a targeted private sector
entity being attacked without a timely and effective alert.
Option 1: Status Quo. Congress may decide to allow DHS to deal with issues relating to HSAS
advisories at this stage of HSAS development. This approach would encourage the continued
utilization of the DHS terrorist threat communication systems. Since the HSAS is designed for
federal government use, there may be no need for DHS to establish any other communication
systems that disseminate changes in the HSAS terrorist threat levels. This would, however, not
address the issues some have raised about the dissemination of HSAS advisories. Some would
argue that before DHS establishes a specific system that communicates a change in HSAS
terrorist threat levels, DHS needs to establish protective measures for states, localities, the public,
and the private sector. This argument is based on the belief that there is little value in knowing of
a change in the HSAS terrorist threat level in the absence of recommended protective measures.
Option 2: Revise the HSAS Notification Process. Congress could encourage, or enact legislation
instructing DHS to revise the HSAS notification process to ensure that state and local law
enforcement, and emergency management agencies are informed of changes of the terrorist threat
level in a more effective and timely manner. This approach could address the problem of states
and localities receiving the notification via the news media without first receiving official
notification from DHS. This approach, however, would not address the issue of the public, and
private sectors receiving timely notification of changes in the HSAS threat level.
A possible communications system DHS could use for disseminating threat level changes of the
HSAS is the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN). DHS announced an expansion of
its HSIN on February 24, 2004. The HSIN is a computer-based counterterrorism communications
network connecting DHS to all 50 states, five territories, and 50 major urban areas for a two-way
flow of terrorist threat information. This communications system delivers real-time interactive
connectivity among state and local partners with the DHS Homeland Security Operations Center
(HSOC) through the Joint Regional Information Exchange System (JRIES). The community of
users include State Homeland Security Advisors, State Adjutant Generals, State Emergency 36
Operation Centers, and local emergency response providers.
HSAS is not the only federal warning system; eight separate systems exist to provide timely
notification about imminent and potentially catastrophic threats to health and safety. The types of 37
hazards covered by these systems include severe weather, contamination from chemical and
36 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Press Secretary, “Homeland Security Information Network to
Expand Collaboration, Connectivity to States and Major Cities,” press release, February 24, 2004. Available at
http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=3350, visited March 4, 2004.
37 Advanced Weather Information Processing System (AWIPS), Emergency Managers Weather Information Network
(EMWIN), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio (NWR), and NOAA Weather
Wire Service (NWWS).
biological weapon stockpiles scheduled for destruction,38 terrorist attacks,39 and any other 40
emergency or hazard the President decides is significant enough to warrant public notification.
Some argue for the consolidation of the existing warning systems into one “all-hazard” system. 41
The Partnership for Public Warning is one organization advocating this type of consolidation.
Other organizations, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Media Security
and Reliability Council (MSRC) have recommended that the Emergency Alert System (EAS) 42
should be established and implemented uniformly in all parts of the United States. This
enhanced EAS would be fed information from systems such as the HSAS.
Consolidation and coordination of these warning systems would present challenges to
administering an “all-hazard” warning system. Some of the challenges include the administration
of the warning system, interoperability of existing warning systems, and the involvement of
Congress has directed the President to insure that all appropriate federal agencies are prepared to
issue warnings of potential disasters to state and local officials, and that federal agencies provide
technical assistance to state and local governments to insure that timely and effective disaster
warnings are provided. The President is authorized to utilize or make available to federal, state,
and local agencies the facilities of the civil defense communications system, or any other federal
communications system, for the purpose of providing warnings to governmental authorities and 43
the civilian population in areas endangered by disasters. Federal agencies that currently
administer warning systems include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal
Communications Commission, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Department of 44
Defense. DHS is also responsible for coordinating and distributing warnings to the public.
Existing warning systems are not interoperable. Reasons for this are:
• separate transmitting and receiving equipment;45
• separate standard message protocols;
• separate procedures for how warnings are input into dissemination systems; and
• separate training, exercising, and testing of the system.46
38 Federal Emergency Managers Information System (FEMIS).
39 Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS).
40 Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Warning System (NAWAS).
41 http://www.partnershipforpublicwarning.org, visited June 10, 2003.
42 Molly M. Peterson, “Experts Call For Uniformity in Anti-Terrorism Alert,” National Journal’s Technology Daily,
May 28, 2003.
43 42 U.S.C. 5132.
44 P.L. 107-296, sec. 102 (c)(3).
45 This transmitting and receiving equipment include satellite antenna receivers, NOAA Weather Radio, AM and FM
radio, television, 1610mHz radio receiver, dedicated computer networks, and dedicated telephone networks.
46 National Science and Technology Council, Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Effective Disaster
Warnings, (Washington: November 2000), pp. 19-20; http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=9985, visited
Since this technology is primarily researched, developed, and operated by private industry, the
federal government could establish a relationship with the corporate suppliers of these
technologies, a relationship to encourage development and effectively consolidate or provide the
means to make the current warning systems interoperable.
Consolidating and coordinating federal warning systems, however, may cause a loss of
concentration on the systems’ traditional hazards. Mature warning systems have established
alerting protocols and routines that, if consolidated, could become too broad, which may result in
less effective warnings.
Option 1: Status Quo. Without congressional intervention, federal agencies responsible for
issuing warnings will likely continue to narrowly focus on traditional hazards. This approach
allows mature warning systems to continue communicating alerts and protective measures to an
identified audience. Also, this approach would not incur an increased need for federal funding
that would be required to update, test, and ensure compatibility of the systems. On the other hand,
this approach would not address issues such as overlap of hazards (terrorist threat warnings of
HSAS, and any presidential declared emergency warning issued by EAS), and the potential need
to reach a wide audience through the use of multiple warning systems.
Option 2: Coordination and Update of Warning Systems. If Congress decided to address the issue
of coordinating warning systems, it could require all federal agencies with hazard warning
responsibilities, to establish, and develop a means for coordinating and updating existing warning
systems. This approach could allow any warning of man-made or natural hazards to be issued on
the full range of federal warning systems. This could ensure that a larger number of the state and
local governments, the public, and private sector entities would receive the specific warning in an
effective and timely manner. It would require a communication protocol to be developed that
allowed one federal warning system to “talk” to a different system.
Updating of warning systems would not only include the ability of one system to “talk” to
another, but could also include the ability of such systems as EAS to be transmitted on off-the-
shelf telecommunication devices such as cellular phones. Given the widespread use of wireless 47
communications, some observers have argued for warnings to be issued on wireless devices. In th
the 108 Congress, S. 564 proposes such an approach that would facilitate the deployment of
wireless networks in order to extend the range and reach of EAS. It would also ensure emergency 48
personnel priority access to communications facilities in times of emergency.
Option 3: Consolidation of Warning Systems. If Congress decided that there needs to be an all-
hazard warning system, it could enact legislation requiring the federal agencies that have warning
responsibilities to develop and implement such a system to warn states, localities, the public, and
the private sector. This approach could ensure that any warning of a hazard—man-made or
natural—would be disseminated to as many entities as necessary in a timely and effective th
manner. In the 108 Congress, two bills, S. 118, and H.R. 2537, propose such an approach to all-
hazard warnings. The bills propose the establishment of a single all-hazard warning system that
would ensure that states, localities, the public, and the private sector would be alerted to specific
December 23, 2002.
47 See footnote 35 on the Partnership for Public Warning.
48 S. 564, sec. 2 (108th Cong.)
risks from man-made, and natural hazards.49 This approach, however, would arguably require
federal funding and effort to research, test, develop, and implement an all-hazard warning system.
An increase in the HSAS threat level imposes both direct and indirect costs on federal, state, and
local governments, the private sector, and the public. These costs include the increased security
measures undertaken by states and localities, loss to tourism, and the indirect cost on the
economy during a period of heightened threat level. In FY2003, the Office for Domestic
Preparedness (renamed the Office of Grant Programs in FY2007) Critical Infrastructure
Protection grant program authorized state and local governments to use allocated grants to fund 50
overtime costs associated with heightened threat levels. According to the Office of Grant
Programs’s State Homeland Security Grant and Urban Area Security Initiative grant programs
guidance, overtime is an authorized expenditure only associated with training or exercises. Office
of Grant Programs’s Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program, however, does allow 51
overtime costs specifically related to homeland security efforts.
Local governments incur direct costs when they put in place additional security measures to deal 52
with a higher threat condition. An example of this is the cost of random car searches at Atlanta’s
Hartsfield airport, which reportedly requires $180,000 a month for labor and signage. This cost is 53
borne by Atlanta’s police department and airport administration. Because of the budget crisis
that many states are experiencing, additional homeland security costs during heightened threat
periods are seen as an additional fiscal burden. The costs associated with threat level changes 54
have prompted many state and local officials to complain to DHS. The United States
Conference of Mayors released a 145-city survey that reported that during periods of heightened 55
alert homeland security costs increased to additional $70 million a week.
This increase in homeland security costs during heightened threat periods also has localities
arguing for direct funding from the federal government. FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters is the
only assistance that provide 100% of the funding to localities. The Office of Grant Programs’s
Urban Area Security Initiative grants, however, first pass through the state, which causes some
localities to complain about a delay in receiving funding.
49 S. 118, sec. 3 (108th Cong.), H.R. 2537, sec. 3 (108th Cong.)
50 ODP’s Critical Infrastructure Grant Program received no appropriations in FY2004.
51 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Grants and Training, Fiscal Year 2006 Homeland Security Grant
Program: Program Guidance and Application Kit (Washington: December 2005).
52 John Mintz, “U.S. Lowers Level of Terror Alert from Orange to Yellow; Intelligence Suggests Less Risk of Attack,”
Washington Post, June 1, 2003, p. A4.
53 Eunice Moscoso, “U.S. Lowers Alert to Yellow But Urges Caution,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 17, 2003, p.
54 John Mintz and Susan Schmidt, “Government Raises Terror Alert Level to Orange; Officials Say Intelligence
Suggests Al Qaeda Attacks,” Washington Post, May 21, 2003, p. A1.
55 Andy Soloman, United States Conference of Mayors, “War, Threat Alert Increase City Security Costs by $70 Million
per Week Nationwide,” press release, March 27, 2003. Available at http://www.usmayors.org/uscm/news/
press_releases/documents/surveyrelease_032703.pdf, visited August 4, 2003.
Authorized program expenditures are another point of contention that states and localities have
with homeland security funding and costs. All homeland security grant programs list authorized
equipment and activities that grant allocations can be used to fund. States and localities may
argue that these authorized expenditures do not address their specific homeland security needs.
These direct homeland security costs occur not only at the state and local level: when the threat
level changes, federal departments and agencies have to adopt prescribed protective measures
outlined in the different threat condition levels of the HSAS.
An indirect cost of a heightened threat level is the negative effect on tourism in cities perceived as
potential targets of terrorism . It has been observed that increased threat levels and the need for
heightened security have hurt the tourism industry of such metropolitan areas as Washington, DC,
New York, and Chicago. Washington’s Mayor Anthony Williams urged residents to be alert for
suspicious activities. He also wanted the city to remain friendly, open, and safe to minimize the 56
affects of the terrorist threat level on tourism. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton agreed
with the need to keep Washington open to tourism. She said that the city’s tourism industry had
been hurt by changes in threat condition, and that she feared some officials would overreact and 57
shut down public buildings. An example of the impact on tourism is the decision by some 58
schools to cancel trips to Washington because of the threat of terrorist attack.
Some municipal officials have had to make a costly decision between homeland security and
tourism. Philadelphia’s mayor, John F. Street, for instance, chose not to close down a street
around Independence Hall after he received a call from DHS Secretary Ridge, who advised its
closing. Mayor Street cited traffic and tourism concerns as the reason he chose not to respond to 59
the recommendation. Another indirect cost may be how a change in the HSAS threat condition 60
affects the stock markets.
Option 1: Status Quo. Congress may decide that the Office of Grant Programs homeland security
assistance adequately meets the needs of states and localities’ homeland security costs due to a
heightened HSAS threat. It may be an appropriate approach for ensuring the splitting of
homeland security costs among the several tiers of government. This policy approach would not
however, address such issues as the needs of some state and local first responder agencies, of
hiring additional personnel, the loss of revenue generated by tourism due to an increased terrorist
threat level, or the cost the economy incurs when the terrorist threat level is raised.
Option 2: Funding Through Established the Office of Grant Programs. Should Congress decide
that more funding needs to be provided to cover costs incurred by states and localities due to an
increased terrorist threat level, it could consider establishing grant programs that specifically fund
such terrorist prevention, preparedness, and mitigation activities as overtime pay for first
responders and the purchase of equipment and personnel for the protection of critical
56 Spencer S. Hsu, “Tightening the Security Net,” Washington Post, March 19, 2003, p. A1.
57 Vaishli Honawar, “Tours of Capitol Get Go-Ahead to Resume,” Washington Times, April 24, 2003, p. B1.
58 “New Hampshire News Notes,” Union Leader (Manchester, NH), March 21, 2003, p. B2.
59 Alex Fryer, “Feds Guide, Can’t Enforce Tight Security at Local Level,” Seattle Times, May 24, 2003, sec. Domestic
60 Steve Gelsi, “Dow Hits New 2003 High as Stocks Rally,” CBS Market Watch, May 30, 2003, sec. Market Snapshot.
“Stock Market Ticker,” Comtex News Network, May 30, 2003. Eric Kirzner, “War Footing Keeps Markets In Retreat,”
National Post’s Financial Post & FP Investing, March 3, 2003, p. FP 7.
infrastructure. In the 108th Congress, S. 1245 proposed such an approach by recommending that a
consolidated homeland security grant program provide grant allocations for overtime expenses
related to training, activities (as determined by the DHS Secretary) relating to an increase in the 61
HSAS threat level, and emergency preparedness responses to a WMD incident.
Option 3: Funding Specifically for Heightened Threat Levels. Should Congress decide to provide
funding for costs incurred during heightened threat level periods, it could appropriate funds, in
addition to the Office of Grant Programs homeland security assistance, specifically to states,
localities, and private sector entities to compensate for costs associated with a change in the th
HSAS threat level. In the 108 Congress, S. 728 proposed such an approach by compensating 62
state and local law enforcement for costs associated with airport security.
61 S. 1245, sec. 4 (108th Cong.)
62 S. 728, sec. 4 (108th Cong.)
Table 2. Homeland Security Advisory Threat Level Changes
(March 12, 2002 to Present)
Threat Dates Number of Reason for Threat Level Change to “Orange”
Elevated Mar. 12, 2002 - — —
(Yellow) Sep. 10, 2002
High Sep. 11, 2002 - 13 Terrorist threat information based on debriefings of a senior Al Qaeda operative.a
(Orange) Sep. 24, 2002
Elevated Sep. 25, 2002 - — —
(Yellow) Feb. 6, 2003
High Feb. 7, 2003 - 20 Intelligence reports suggesting Al Qaeda attacks on apartment buildings, hotels, and other soft skin targets.b
(Orange) Feb. 27, 2003
Elevated Feb. 28, 2003 - — —
(Yellow) Mar. 16, 2003
iki/CRS-RL32023High Mar. 17, 2003 - Intelligence reports indicated Al Qaeda would probably attempt to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. interests to
g/w(Orange) Apr. 11, 2003 25 defend Muslims and the “Iraqi people.”c
s.orElevated Apr. 12, 2003 - —
leak(Yellow) May 19, 2003 —
://wikiHigh May 20, 2003 - 10 In the wake of terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the U.S. intelligence community believed Al Qaeda had d
http(Orange) May 30, 2003 entered an operational period worldwide, including attacks in the United States.
Elevated May 31, 2003 - — —
(Yellow) Dec. 20, 2003
High Dec. 21, 2003 - 19 Increased terrorist communications indicating attacks.e
(Orange) Jan. 9, 2004
Elevated Jan. 10, 2004 - — —
(Yellow) Jul. 31, 2004
High Aug. 1, 2004 - 98 Terrorist threat intelligence indicates that Al Qaeda has been planning attacks against financial institutions in New f
(Orange) Nov. 10, 2004 York, Washington, DC, and New Jersey since pre-9/11.
Elevated Nov. 11, 2004 - — —
(Yellow) Jul. 6, 2005
High Jul. 7, 2005 - 36 Due to terrorist bombings of London mass transit systems, DHS raised threat level for mass transit systems only.g
(Orange) Aug. 12, 2005
Threat Dates Number of Reason for Threat Level Change to “Orange”
Elevated Aug. 13, 2005 - — —
(Yellow) Aug. 9, 2006
Severe Aug. 10, 2006 - 3 Due to terrorist plans to bomb flights originating in the United Kingdom, DHS raised threat level of airlines only.h
(Red) Aug. 12, 2006
High Aug. 13, 2006 - — According to DHS, all international flights are to be designated “orange.”
Total Number of “Orange” 220
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Press Secretary.
a. U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary, Office of the Press Secretary, “Director Ridge, Attorney General Ashcroft Discuss Threat Level,” press release, Sept. 10,
2002. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=150, visited Mar. 4, 2004.
b. Ibid., “Threat Level Raised to Orange,” press release, Feb. 7, 2003. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=459, visited Mar. 4, 2004.
iki/CRS-RL32023c. Ibid., “Operation Liberty Shield: Statement by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge,” press release, Mar. 17, 2003. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=519.
s.ord. Ibid., “Statement of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge Raising the Threat Level,” press release, May 20, 2003. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/
leakdisplay?content=741, visited Mar. 4, 2004.
e. CRS could find no DHS press release providing the reason for raising the threat level from “yellow” to “orange” on Dec. 20, 2003. Other news media sources cite the
://wikireason as “increased terrorist communications in recent days”; see Frank James, “U.S. Raises Terror Alert,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 2003, p. 1.
httpf. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Press Secretary, “Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge Regarding Recent Threat Reports,” press
release, Aug. 1, 2004. Available at http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=3870, visited Aug. 5, 2004.
g. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Press Secretary, “Transcript from Secretary Michael Chertoff Press Briefing on the London Bombings,” press release,
July 7, 2005.
h. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Press Secretary, “Statement by the Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff Announcing a Change to the
Nation’s Threat Level for the Aviation Sector,” press release, Aug. 10, 2006.
Analyst in Emergency Management and Homeland