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Terror alerts run risk of crying wolf

The public is largely indifferent to color-code warnings as attacks have not materialized.

On May 20, when the nation went to Code Orange - the second-highest level in the national terror alert system - the US Capitol and the sidewalk in front of the White House remained open to visitors.

District of Columbia police stuck with eight-hour shifts, not the 12-hour tours they had worked during previous orange alerts. There was no run on duct tape at Home Depot, reflecting the collective public shrug that seemed to greet the latest warnings of possible impending terrorism, dubbed "Orange Lite."

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The nation's capital had gone to a "lower level of elevated alert," local authorities explained, because of the lack of any specific threat against Washington. The nation is back down to Code Yellow, the middle of the five-tier alert system, but few people noticed when news of the change was announced Friday.

Fifteen months after the color-coded alert scheme was introduced, experts on terrorism and those on the front lines of protecting public safety are grateful that there have been no attacks on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001. But this stretch of suspenseful calm, punctuated by government warnings of possible attacks that don't occur, risks what analysts call a "crying wolf syndrome," in which the public and even first responders lower their guard.

"Here's the difficulty: One color code is trying to give us too much information," says Randall Larsen, a senior fellow at the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security in northern Virginia. "If we go from yellow to orange, the threat of an attack is higher. But is that the threat of a small car bomb or a nuclear weapon? I'm going to worry about one much more than the other."

Two-tier: orange and yellow

In reality, says Mr. Larsen, we live in a two-color world, yellow and orange. Code Red will mean an attack is under way, and the two lower levels are politically infeasible. All of which leads to speculation that the alert system is, in part, a means by which the government can protect itself from public criticism in the event of another attack.

Even if the orange alerts are largely met with indifference by the public, for safety officials they are still significant.

When the threat level was raised to orange by the federal government, state officials put California Highway Patrol officers on 12-hour shifts, instead of their regular eight-hour workdays, says Tom Marshall, a spokesman for the CHP. "We also set in place more frequent air patrols over power grids, aqueducts, nuclear powers plants, and major bridges," says Mr. Marshall.

Similarly, when the federal government toggled up to Code Orange two weeks ago, Washington D.C. shifted to Level II of its own three-level alert system. Even though the city didn't take all the measures it had taken in previous periods of heightened alert, it still took some precautionary steps such as activating closed-circuit cameras mounted in downtown Washington.

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But according to published reports, part of the police chief's calculation in not going to 12-hour shifts was around the issue of money: Washington and other jurisdictions around the country can't afford the overtime costs of extended shifts. Last year, the Portland, Ore., police spent $365,000 on overtime protecting the city's bridges, an expense that fiscally strapped cities and states can ill afford.

Differences from city to city

Different cities have different responses. Justin Risly, spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department, says his department does not change its security procedures during a federal orange alert."The bottom line for us is, unless we have a specific threat, we don't do much of anything differently," says Mr. Risly.

"For cities, everyone's pretty much freelancing on responses, based on the risk assessment in their own community," says John DiStefano, mayor of New Haven, Ct., and president of the National League of Cities.

Even if most citizens have lost track of the alert level, or are unaware of the alerts altogether, Mayor DiStefano says the system still has meaning for first responders.

The day after the nation shifted up to Code Orange, a bomb exploded at Yale University Law School in New Haven. DiStefano says the emergency response was stronger than if the threat level hadn't just been raised.

A variety of attitudes

New York City doesn't struggle with the dilemma of bouncing back and forth between orange and yellow; the city has been at Code Orange since Sept. 11, 2001. But for many residents, that state of high alert has lost meaning.

"I don't really think about it," says Piya Kochhar, a student at Columbia University in Manhattan. "It just seems like this constant state - what are you going to do, freak out all the time?"

That attitude can be found elsewhere across the US, too.

Deidre Smith, of San Francisco, says she "doesn't really think about it" when the threat level rises to orange. "I cross the Golden Gate Bridge daily as part of my commute, but I do it at odd hours and I don't notice a police presence," she said.

But others try to evaluate the alerts case by case. Victor Lieberman, of Carlsbad, postponed a business trip to Paris in the weeks before war broke out with Iraq because of the heightened concerns over terrorism. When the threat level was raised to orange two weeks ago, he continued with his planned business trips. "I don't change business plans," says Mr. Lieberman. "What if I postpone a trip for two weeks and then the threat is worse?"

Some people don't change their lifestyles when the threat level rises. "The whole alert thing is something we Americans tend to get used to," says Kirk Scott, of Vallejo, Calif. "We tend to forget the impetus."

Stacey Vanek Smith in New York and Pamela Martineau in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.