Thursday, November 30, 2006

Back on Alert in the Homeland

After over nine months in Central America the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport seemed like the Emerald City in the Land of OZ ─ vast, opulent, crammed with Star Wars gadgetry. Although the terminal in San Jose, Costa Rica is a modern facility, with eight dollar hamburgers and fancy gift shops, Ft. Worth made it look like a jungle landing strip.

The DFW concourse was packed with guys in business suits talking out loud to themselves. At first I thought they were deranged poets or well dressed bag men. Turns out they were using hands-free cell phones. TV screens showed where planes were in flight. My son marveled at soap dispensers that worked magically as you waved your hand in front of them.

The luxury didn’t come without risk, however. The US airport was a hotbed terrorist danger. Warnings filled the air. Complementary scary terror propaganda flowed from the many sleek, flat-screen TV monitors. After almost a year of never knowing what my terror threat alert color was, suddenly I was reminded of it every few minutes. CNN was reporting all kinds of terror news and flacking their upcoming special “Keeping You Safe.”

Every five minutes CNN updated us on the discovery of a suspicious package at the Lincoln Memorial. Authorities closed the memorial immediately and were checking out the package. They were searching for a six foot tall white guy. I’ll bet they found one.

I never understood why unattended packages in public places are reported immediately on the national media. What is the public safety benefit? If it turns out the package is dangerous, widespread reporting only helps the terrorists by spreading vastly more terror than keeping it quiet would. And if it turns out that the package is a peanut butter sandwich instead of an anthrax cocktail, the authorities look foolish.

My flight left before I found out what was in the Lincoln Memorial package. Since I never heard about it after that day, it must have been benign. I wondered how many abandoned Sponge Bob lunch boxes wrapped in duct tape it would take to initiate martial law.

I don’t know if the Lincoln Memorial incident was the reason, but I was traveling on the very day on which our terror alert level had been raised from YELLOW (Significant Risk of Terrorist Attack) to ORANGE (High Risk of Terrorist Attack). I felt like I should do something. I looked around for swarthy men with towels and bungee chords on their heads. I scanned the area for abandoned bags. Nothing.

I was in a Wifi hotspot there in the airport, so I whipped out my laptop and went to the Department of Homeland Security website for instructions. There’s not a lot of detail in the threat level instructions. I’ll review them briefly here.

At the low risk Green level, which we’ve never known, we are supposed to have taken a CPR course, put together an “Emergency Supply Kit” (duct tape and plastic sheeting, food and water, forget your rifle and ammo) learned how to “shelter-in-place” (not exactly described, but involves duct tape and plastic sheeting) and how to shut off the utilities. None of that seems particularly useful to the traveler in a high-risk Orange Alert airport. If “sheltering-in-place” includes hiding behind the furniture I guess we could do that. I doubt you could get your Emergency Supply Kit past security.

Further instructions for threat levels above Green ─ which include Blue, Yellow, Orange and Red ─ consist mostly of reviewing stuff you did at previous threat levels and being “alert for suspicious activity.” At level Orange, we are to expect further searches and delays. And, I quote, “Exercise caution when traveling, pay attention to travel advisorie.” Yes, they misspelled “advisory.”

At threat level Red (Severe Risk of Terrorist Attack) the emphasis shifts solidly to obeying orders. Level Red instructions are essentially, “Do as you are told. Don’t try to help,(unless we tell you to.) Call the office you might have the day off.”

I’m frankly disappointed that DHS has so little confidence in the ability of Americans to defend themselves and deal with terrorists. Surely we can do more than “shelter-in-place.”

With that in mind, here is O’Boyle’s Threat Level Alert System (OTLAS). I offer it as a less passive alternative to the DHS system. Below is an example of how the OTLAS would deal with a threat in the most likely place, the airport, and in the most common manifestation, the unattended piece of luggage. There are many other situations and threats, of course.

You discover an abandoned Sponge Bob lunchbox and your OTLAS threat level is:

GREEN: Open it right now; it’s probably full of Twinkies and M&Ms left by the luggage fairy.

BLUE: Shake it first, then open it and enjoy your treat.

YELLOW: Don’t touch it. Yell a warning to everyone in the area. Call the bomb squad.

ORANGE: Too dangerous to wait for the cops. Stomp it flat and then toss it out into the road in front of the airport. Take cover.

RED: For God’s sake, it’s going to blow, throw it into the nearest trash can, empty your pistol into the can, then “shelter in place” until it explodes.

Citizens interested in doing more than just waiting to be killed by terrorists or bossed around by bureaucrats can get a handy wallet sized OTLAS action guide by email. If you would simply like a more dynamic threat color alert system you can use this one:


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