The government recently announced that the terrorist warning system is being revised. The old color-coded system, instituted shortly after 9/11 had five levels of threat: Green for Low (low risk of terrorist attack); Blue for Guarded (general risk of terrorist attach); Yellow for Elevated (significant risk of terrorist attack); Orange for High (high risk of terrorist attacks); Red for Severe (severe risk of terrorist attacks).  The new system will only have two alerts: Elevated and Imminent.

I was speaking with a  client of mine about the new system. In the course of our discussion, he asked what I thought of the old one. I told him I didn’t like it for a couple of reasons. First, it gave us a level of information — color-coding — that was unnecessary. The words alone told the story — succinctly.  But I’m a communicator. My client liked the color coding.  Maybe that’s because he’s a software engineer and the system had built-in redundancy. Engineers like that. But what’s good for communication on a  computer network is not necessarily a good thing for the human network.

One of the problems with the color coding is that we never saw the system on a daily basis. Frequency builds understanding. Think of street signs. We could paint over the word “STOP” on every stop sign, but you would still know what to do when you came to an intersection that had one of these signs.  If we saw the terror alert system every day on the news, appearing in the lower right corner along with the weather and time, we would have learned the significance of each color. I never saw the terrorist alert system anywhere in public. I heard it announced on radio or television a few times, and each time, the announcer said something like “The terrorist alert system was upgraded to Orange today, meaning high alert for terrorist attacks.” He could have skipped the color and I would have gotten the message that much faster.

There were also too many levels to the system. And each level didn’t indicate some corresponding action to be taken. I couldn’t think of what I would do different if we had a blue, green yellow or even orange alert code.

Sometimes words alone are enough. What’s most unfortunate of course, is that we need to use these words at all.