Feds revamp terror alert system: What you should know

The Homeland Security National Alert System has been activated for the first time since 2011. Officials are revamping the alert system to tell the public about security risks from terrorism.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson discusses the updates to the National Terrorism Advisory System Wednesday. Color-coded alerts after the 9/11 attacks were replaced in 2011 with "elevated" and "imminent" levels.

The government has taken the national security alert system up a notch.

Security may be more of an issue for holiday travelers, after the government released a bulletin telling Americans to be ready for extra security checks from this Wednesday through June 2016.

"More stringent security should also be anticipated at public places and events," the alert reads. "This may include a heavy police presence, additional restrictions and searches on bags, and the use of screening technologies."

The alert is a way for the government to communicate with the public about how it is dealing with the threat of terrorism. Alert systems should not feel completely unfamiliar to Americans, as the government used a different version from just after the 2001 September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon until 2011. (Such systems will also be familiar to readers of fiction and moviegoers. In the Harry Potter books, for instance, the Ministry of Magic issues informative purple pamphlets describing defensive steps. Such measures are also seen in the 1983 film "War Games.")

The alert system, which the Obama administration overhauled in 2011 and has not used since, previously had two levels – "elevated," which corresponds to credible threats, and "imminent," which informs the public of more specific threats. The announcement Wednesday adds a third level that the Department of Homeland Security secretary is calling a bulletin, Time reported.

Public officials are working with a "new phase of a global terrorist threat" – radicals attacking public places on American soil – so they have created a different way to tell the public about it, USA Today reported.

"People are anxious now," USA Today has quoted the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson as saying. "People need to know what their government is doing to protect the homeland."

This change is not a result of the terrorist attacks of recent months, Haley Sweetland Edwards reported for Time. This change to the national alert system has been in the works for nine months, long before the Nov. 15 terrorist attacks in Paris or the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

The system is changing partly to make it easier for public safety officials to do their jobs. If the public knows how serious a threat is, what geographic area it affects, and how investigators are trying to take care of it, they may feel less anxious about interruptions by security forces on their daily routines.

The new alert system is also supposed to provide the public with specific information about how to protect themselves and their families, Reuters reported. One of the criticisms of previous alert systems has been this lack of practical advice.

More information on this change should be forthcoming. This is just the build-up to the announcement Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson plans to make on Thursday, according to Reuters. More details should become available soon.

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