We're on High Alert: Now What?

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BE, WELL, A LITTLE MORE AFRAID THAN BEFORE: Aschcroft, Mueller and Ridge up the terror alert

Friday, Americans were confronted with unsettling news: the government's terror alert level rose from yellow (elevated) to orange (high) for the first time since September 2002. Officials theorize the "spike" in suspicious communications may be linked to the start of the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or to discussions of an attack on Iraq. And while the change in hue did not prompt fears to rival the jittery heights of fall 2001, the announcement did prompt a bit more worry in an already nervous nation.

While the feds underscore they do not know of a threat to any specific target, intelligence sources have picked up increased "chatter" from potential terror cells in recent days. With such a vague warning and no new information, how should the public respond to this alert?

It?s important to be vigilant, according to William Waugh, professor of Public Administration and Urban Studies/Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. But it?s equally important to not overreact, says Waugh, an expert on international and domestic terrorism and the author of "Terrorism and Emergency Management" and "Living with Hazards, Dealing with Disasters." TIME.com spoke with Professor Waugh about what the alerts mean — and how we should respond to them.

TIME.com: Does it make sense for the government to announce the changes in alert levels to the public?
William Waugh: Well, it could probably be argued that we've been on alert since September 11th, 2001, so I'm not really sure this change has changed anything. All of our emergency response teams were already on highest alert before the warning, and I don't think there's any way to ramp up from there, either in terms of manpower or budgets.

The only danger I can see in issuing such a strongly worded warning is if nothing happens this time around, the next time there's an alert the government may find people lose attentiveness, or patience, and become less vigilant. It's kind of a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" scenario.

What does the public hear when authorities issue a warning like this?
It?s a bit of a mixed message: Each time there is an increase in "chatter" from intelligence agencies, the alarm is going to spike briefly. In terms of relating to the public, this situation is particularly tough for some agencies, like law enforcement, which have little or no experience dealing with the public in the role of "communicator." Other agencies, like public health organizations, are better at things like that, but at moments like this it's more often law enforcement that breaks the news.

How should the public respond to this heightened state of alert? What can we do?
Generally, you should just be vigilant, pay attention to what's going on. If people really feel they need to do something, they should prepare as if for a hurricane, with some water and some canned goods, a flashlight and a radio. This is not a moment to run out and buy a gas mask; if you've been watching the news you know it wouldn't do you a whole lot of good anyway. But they should also just watch the news — this is definitely a situation where information is power. People generally feel more secure when they have more information.