EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/The color of fear
You know the Department of Homeland Security’s wildly popular color advisory system that classifies and colorizes the degrees of terrorist threats? Green means you can live without fear. Blue means you should be vaguely concerned. Yellow signals you definitely should be concerned (and maybe wear a helmet). Orange means that almost anything could happen now, and red means you should apologize for everything mean you’ve ever said. Similarly, we also should establish a set of colors for various agencies and associations to use to communicate the risk levels facing cities and counties.
This time I would limit the number of colors because, like the Homeland Security system, no one will remember them or what they mean. However, my new “Down-home Alert Color System” would use only three, easy-to-remember colors: red, white and blue. Red stands for angry. Blue represents a sad state of affairs. And white means ignore at your own peril.
For example, the Council on Foreign Relations could have issued a red alert with one of its recent reports because some of its facts should make you angry. The study notes that after $23 billion was allocated last year to prepare for and react to acts of terrorism, only about 50 percent of the nation’s firefighters are equipped with radios and only one-third are equipped with breathing apparatuses. Red also would be an appropriate alert color for the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors study that found 76 percent of the cities it surveyed have not received one red cent of first responder or critical infrastructure funding.
To characterize a sad state of affairs, the National League of Cities could have issued a blue alert when it released its most recent report saying that cities are less able to meet their financial needs this year than last, and that no improvement is expected next year. Also qualifying for a blue alert is the Minnesota Public Radio story last month that reported the ranks of Minnesota’s local government employees continue to shrink, as do their wages. After weathering the recession, 12,000 local government jobs have been cut in that state in the past year.
As you can see, the problems characterized by red or blue alerts are relatively short term, and are at the mercy of our economy. White alerts, however, are reserved for the reports focused on our largest and most permanent problems. For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) should issue a white alert with its 2005 Progress Report for America’s Infrastructure if the overall grade is as poor as the 2003 version (D+). If we continue to ignore a white alert that shows no improvement to our roads and bridges, drinking water and schools, no matter how you color it, the consequences are guaranteed to be black.