Homeland Security in America: Past, Present, and Future


Eleven days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush named the first director of the Office of Homeland Security, a new entity then located in the White House. This office oversaw and coordinated a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard the country against terrorism and respond to any future attacks.

Congress passed the Homeland Security Act in November 2002, formally creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a stand-alone, cabinet-level department to further coordinate and unify national homeland security efforts. DHS opened its doors on March 1, 2003, and integrated all or parts of 22 different federal departments and agencies into a single, unified, and integrated department.

Since then, the United States has initiated and implemented two national warning systems, the most recent one in April 2011, and several emergency- and disaster-related citizen support groups have emerged, designed to assist law enforcement agencies and first responders at city, county, state, and federal levels of government. Furthermore, government Web sites now post critical information for public officials, first responders, and citizens in general. This information has become more sophisticated in recent years and is continually improved. Federal agencies are using social media to further instruct young people and citizens in preparing and responding to disasters and emergencies of all kinds.

Following are some homeland security resources to aid public officials and first responders in better serving citizens.


To improve coordination and communication among all levels of government and the public in the fight against terrorism, President Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 3 in March 2002, creating the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), which provided a simple way to alert citizens and government officials of the risk of possible terrorist attacks.

Each of the many federal alert systems in America are tailored to a different sector or interest–e.g., transportation, defense, agriculture, and weather. They provide vital and specific requirements for a variety of emergency situations for government, nonprofit organizations, and commercial sectors.

The HSAS offered a national framework for these systems, characterizing appropriate levels of vigilance, preparedness, and readiness. It contained five color-coded threat conditions: Green: Low, Blue: Guarded, Yellow: Elevated, Orange: High, and Red: Severe. The DHS determined the selection of the appropriate threat designation to issue and the steps that should be taken for preparedness and readiness by other levels of government.

The recommended protective measures corresponding to each threat condition helped local governments and their citizens decide what actions to take to counter and respond to possible terrorist activity and reduce their vulnerability. Based on the threat level, federal agencies implemented appropriate safeguards and protective measures. States and municipalities were encouraged to adopt compatible local preparedness and response systems.

State and local officials were informed of national threat advisories in advance whenever possible. The DHS conveyed relevant information to federal, state, and local officials and to the private and nonprofit sectors. Heightened threat levels could be declared for the entire nation, for a specific geographic area, or for a functional or an industrial sector. Assigned threat conditions were changed whenever the DHS deemed necessary. These threat conditions characterized the risk of a possible terrorist attack based on the best information available.

Since 9/11, the United States has been at threat level Orange (High) only a few times. HSAS warnings were regional or functional in their nature and scope. When an Orange threat level was declared nationwide, local public officials would assure the public that they were taking steps to protect them under this threat condition.

The National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) replaced the color-coded HSAS in April 2011. The new national two-level alert system warns public officials and citizens of a credible terrorist threat. Alerts designate such threats against the United States as imminent or elevated. These threat levels, based on what was expected to happen vs. what might happen, were determined by the federal DHS. The DHS was expected to disseminate timely detailed information to the public, government agencies, first responders, airports and other transportation hubs, and private and nonprofit sectors. All Americans are responsible for the nation’s security and should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attacks in the United States and know how to prepare for and respond to such emergencies.

Using available information, the alerts will provide a concise summary of the potential threat; what actions are being taken to ensure public safety; and recommended steps that individuals, communities, businesses, and governments can take to prevent, mitigate, or respond to the threat.

All NTAS alerts will be based on the nature of the threat. In some cases, alerts will be sent directly to law enforcement agencies or affected private sector areas; in others, alerts will be issued more broadly to the American people through official and media channels. National alerts under this system also contain a sunset provision in which an individual threat alert will be issued for a specific time and then will automatically expire. The alert may be extended if new information becomes available or if the threat evolves. Also, as threat information changes, the DHS secretary will announce updated alerts, which will be distributed the same way as the original alerts to ensure that the same public officials and citizens receive them.

The uniform alert format will contain a summary indicating whether the threat is imminent or elevated, the alert’s duration (after which it expires if not extended), the actual or pending threat details, the affected geographic areas and sectors, how the public can help authorities, and how public officials and citizens should prepare and stay informed. Additionally, these new alerts include instructions for obtaining additional information, the role of public safety and community leaders, and links to appropriate DHS Web sites.

The new national alert system is based on the recommendations of a bipartisan task force of security experts, state and local elected and law enforcement officials, and other key stakeholders that assessed the effectiveness of the HSAS at the request of the DHS secretary.

Finally, the DHS encourages citizens to follow NTAS alerts for information about threats and to take an active role in security by reporting suspicious activity to local law enforcement authorities through the “If You See Something, Say Something” public awareness campaign.


Since 9/11 and the formation of DHS, several citizen assistance and support groups that directly or indirectly relate to the new field of homeland security have arisen. These groups have chapters in virtually every state and work closely with their sponsoring or supporting federal agencies, such as the DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Eight such organizations are highlighted below, followed by a list of associated federal agency Web sites. Public officials should be aware of which groups are in their communities so that when an emergency or a disaster occurs, they can take advantage of the volunteer services these organizations offer.

Citizen Corps was launched in January 2002 and coordinates volunteer activities that will make our communities safer and better prepared to respond to emergencies. Citizens are trained in first aid and emergency skills and volunteer to assist local first responders. Coordinated by the DHS, this group has more than 1,200 chapters nationally. Web site: http://citizencorps.gov.

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) educates citizens about disaster preparedness and trains them in basic disaster response skills such as fire safety, light search and rescue, and disaster medical operations. Using this training, CERT members can assist others in their neighborhoods or workplaces after an event and can be more active in preparing their communities for natural and man-made emergencies. This group has more than 1,900 chapters throughout the nation and is administered by FEMA. Web site: http://citizencorps.gov/cert/.

Fire Corps (FC) promotes the use of citizen advocates to enhance the capacity of resource-constrained fire and rescue departments–volunteer, combination, and career. Citizen advocates can assist local fire departments with fire safety outreach, youth programs, and administrative support services. FC provides resources to assist fire and rescue departments in creating opportunities for citizen advocates and promotes citizen participation. This group has nearly 1,100 chapters throughout the country, is funded through the DHS, and is managed through a partnership of the National Volunteer Fire Council, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Web site: www.firecorps.org.

USAonWatch (USAOW) includes Neighborhood Watch Programs (NWPs) throughout the nation and works to provide information, training, and resources to citizens and law enforcement agencies. After 9/11, the NWPs have expanded beyond their traditional crime prevention role to help neighborhoods focus on disaster preparedness, emergency response, and terrorism awareness. Known in some places as Crime Watch, Block Watch, or Business Watch, this group has thousands of chapters in city neighborhoods nationwide. USAOW-Neighborhood Watch is administered by the National Sheriff’s Association in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in the DOJ. Web site: www.usaonwatch.org.

Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) strengthens communities by helping medical, public health, and other volunteers offer their expertise throughout the year as well as during local emergencies and other community need events. MRC volunteers work in coordination with existing local emergency response programs and supplement existing public health initiatives, such as outreach and prevention, immunization programs, blood drives, case management, care planning, and other efforts. This program, which has nearly a thousand chapters throughout the nation, is administered by the HHS. Web site: www.medicalreservecorps.gov.

Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) provides support and resources for state and local law enforcement agencies interested in developing or enhancing a volunteer program and for citizens who wish to volunteer their time and skills with a law enforcement agency. The program’s ultimate goal is to enhance the capacity of these law enforcement agencies to use citizen volunteers. There are more than 2,200 VIPS chapters nationally; the program is funded by the DOJ and managed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in partnership with the BJA in the Office of Justice Programs, in the DOJ. Web site: www.policevolunteers.org.

Corporation for National and Community Service promotes volunteer service initiatives and activities that support homeland security and community safety. It is a federal agency that operates nationwide service programs such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America, among others. Participants in these programs may support Citizen Corps Council activities by helping to establish training and information delivery systems for neighborhoods, schools, and businesses and by helping with family preparedness and crime prevention initiatives in a single community or across an entire region. Virtually tens of thousands of citizens participate in these federally sponsored national programs. This organization is coordinated nationally by the DHS. Web site: www.serve.gov.

InfraGard is an information-sharing and analysis effort serving the interests and combining the knowledge base of a wide range of members. At the most basic level, it is a partnership between the FBI and the private sector. It is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States, primarily its cyber and public infrastructures. Chapters are linked with 56 FBI field office territories and have more than 47,000 members nationally. This program is administered nationally by the FBI. Web site: www.infragard.net.

Federal Web sites. The following represent the most common, and important, federal government Web sites related to homeland security and emergency management:

–Customs and Border Protection: http://cbp.gov.
–Department of Homeland Security: www.dhs.gov.
–Disaster Assistance Programs: www.disasterassistance.gov.
–Emergency Preparedness for Citizens: www.ready.gov.
–Federal Emergency Management Agency: www.fema.gov.
–First Responder Information: www.dhs.gov/xfrstresp.
–National Terrorism Advisory System: www.dhs.gov/files/programs/ntas.shtm.
–Transportation Security Administration: www.tsa.gov.


Homeland security is a dynamic and evolving field. Local public officials, especially first responders, should be aware of these groups and the services they provide, especially those within their own community.

There is a greater level of engagement among public safety agencies and other first responders at all levels of government. Everyone from public officials to first responders is more aware of the services available from local and regional nonprofit organizations.

Homeland security has influenced also public building layout and construction. Current and future government buildings have more limited vehicle access. It is not likely that they will provide underground public parking; parking will be away from such facilities.

Also, the buildings’ heating and air-conditioning systems will no longer be accessible from ground floors or other exterior locations. Such access is now restricted for security reasons.

Finally, many government buildings are being designed to blend in with the surrounding community; you don’t want them to be the largest and tallest buildings downtown for obvious reasons.

ROGER L. KEMP, Ph.D., is a career city manager, having served in California, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He is the editor of Homeland Security: Best Practices for Local Government (International City/County Management Association, 2010). Kemp served on the Department of Justice’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council and with Connecticut’s Homeland Security Working Group.

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