New terror alert system aims for wide exposure via Web

Homeland Security replaces color-coded categories with simpler tiers that might include threat locations.

The Homeland Security Department's new terrorist threat alert system, scheduled to come online April 26, is aimed at simplifying the concept as well as expanding the places where people can find the alerts, including social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Soon after the new alert system was announced on Wednesday, the department set up a dedicated Facebook page and Twitter feed for the alerts as well as a dedicated website and a host of tools for people or businesses to embed the alerts on their own websites.

The way threat alerts are transmitted to state and local officials and law enforcement won't change, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, according to news reports.

The alerts themselves will replace the old color-coded system with a tiered system that simply describes threats as "elevated" or "imminent" and includes as much information as possible about the threats' geographic location and the types of transportation or infrastructure most likely to be targeted, according to the department.

The term "elevated" will be used for a "credible terrorist threat against the United States" and the term "imminent" will be used for credible threats that are also "specific and impending," the department said.

Napolitano described the old color system as serving little purpose now other than as fodder for late-night comics.

The new system will have no default or resting threat level, and all threat warnings will expire after two weeks, the department said.

That change was aimed at reducing public apathy, Napolitano told reporters.

Under the color-coded system, the general U.S. threat level typically rested at yellow, meaning elevated, while the threat level at airports rested at orange, meaning high. The two lowest levels of the threat rating system were never used.

Homeland Security officials described the new system as having been developed in close collaboration with state and local officials. But representatives for the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures told Nextgov their organizations hadn't been deeply involved in the development except for a conference call with DHS several weeks ago.

The online response to Wednesday's announcement has been mixed.

The dedicated Twitter feed for terror alerts had nearly 4,000 followers about eight hours after the plan was rolled out, and about 850 people "liked" the alert system's Facebook page, which means they'll receive the threat alerts on their own Facebook pages.

An announcement about the program on Homeland Security's main Facebook page had garnered about 25 comments by 4 p.m. on Wednesday, but most of them were critical or inflammatory, and several referenced popular conspiracy theories, a mainstay of comments on that page.