WASHINGTON — The color-coded national alert system unveiled yesterday by White House Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge aims to streamline the complicated task of keeping the American public - and the nation's public-safety officials - on sentinel-like alert against any future terror attacks.
Observers say the system - with its green, blue, yellow, orange, and red levels - could go a long way toward calming public anxieties about vague warnings and synchronize local, state, and federal agencies.
But ultimately, they say, it will only be as good as the specifics it provides.
Detailed, credible information about impending danger helps in two ways, experts say. First, rather than sparking panic, it tends to reassure and empower people to make rational decisions about how to react. Second, it could help state and local officials - who are already stretched thin in defending against terror - focus their efforts.
"We've already done everything we can do," says North Miami Beach, Fla., Police Chief Bill Berger, who also heads the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "I don't know what else I can do without knowing specifics."
Yet providing this will be a challenge. It will require traditionally tight-lipped federal agencies like the FBI and CIA to share classified information without compromising sources or methods.
One bill now in Congress would enable some state and local officials to get security clearance to see sensitive information. Even still, the FBI and CIA would probably closely guard their hard-won intelligence.
Yet sharing this information in more-generic ways is possible, says Jim Kallstrom, New York State's Public Security director and a former FBI agent. "If there's concern about a yellow rental truck, you can get that information out - without detailing where you got it from," he says.
One cutting-edge way to share this information - and put Mr. Ridge's alert system to use - is a network New York State is setting up: Soon, each of its 543 local police departments will have a flat-panel display specifically devoted to terrorism. When an alert arrives on the screen, a siren sounds to get officers' attention.
Local police can also use the network to funnel terrorism-related information to state and federal officials.
Under Ridge's new system, different regions of the country will be put on different levels of alert. Mr. Kallstrom even envisions using the computer network to put different sections of, say, New York City, on different alert levels.
Yet despite the great desire for specific information, one major challenge is that America's intelligence agencies usually only have vague ideas about threats.
Indeed, that's one paradox in Ridge's system, officially called the Homeland Security Advisory System: It aims to provide specific information based on often-spotty and sometimes-unreliable intelligence.
The system will attempt to deal with this challenge by having five broad categories. Ridge said yesterday he envisions the nation as a whole will be on "yellow" alert - meaning there's a "significant risk of terrorist attacks" - for the foreseeable future.
The system "empowers the government and citizens to take actions to address the threat," he said. "For every level of threat, there will be a level of preparedness."
The plan is still evolving, and will be open to public comment for 45 days. Eventually it will include specific guidance to the public - for instance, encouraging fans to show up early for big sports events, if the nation or city is on heightened alert.
But experts say that rather than just telling the public how to act, it's better to give people as much information as possible. Indeed, the recent disclosure that the White House had indications that a nuclear weapon would be smuggled into New York City last fall raises the issue of what local officials - and the general public - should be told. Most officials tend to avoid telling the public things that could spark widespread panic.
Yet panic is rare, experts say. By studying how people react to hurricanes, tornadoes, even the Sept. 11 attacks, "we've learned that you've got to tell it to them straight," says Peter Ward, of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning. "The more people understand about the threat, the less likely there is to be panic."
In fact, the challenge often turns out to be getting people to act on warnings, rather than ignoring them. In hurricane evacuations, for instance, police often have to forcibly remove residents.
Meanwhile, state and local officials are struggling to keep up with demand for increased security. Ridge's system aims to help them respond to the true threat level - rather than being on constant full alert.
But ultimately, Chief Berger says, only specific warnings will spark specific action. "If the threat is against bridges, I'm going to go check all my bridges."