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UCLA study finds problems in terror alert system

January 22, 2009 |  7:35 am

The Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded threat level system is meant to communicate with officials and the public about the nation’s safety. Some communities, however, are getting the wrong message, according to a new UCLA study.

Published in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the study found that marginalized groups, including people of color and those with physical disabilities, were more likely to overestimate the color-coded system and tended to harbor a higher fear of terrorism.

David P. Eisenman, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, said some of the fear had to do with how Hurricane Katrina was handled.

“The memory of the last disaster doesn’t go away until the next disaster occurs,” Eisenman said. “The perception has been that FEMA and Homeland Security are going to take care of the upper-income neighborhoods before they take care of the lower-income neighborhoods.”

According to the study, 26.1% of Latinos reported worrying very often or often about terrorism, compared with 14.1% of whites, while 6.7% of African Americans said they often avoided activities because of terrorism concerns, compared with 1.1% of whites.

“I wouldn’t even say the problem is the color-coding,” Eisenman said. “The real issue is that people know they’re going to receive less services, that they’re going to be more on their own and they’re going to be more vulnerable. We need to change that perception.”

Results were based on random phone surveys conducted with more than 2,500 Los Angeles County residents between October 2004 and January 2005. The study was funded through a grant to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

-- Corina Knoll