WASHINGTON – It was a code blue day Friday in Anne Arundel County. And code yellow. And code green, depending on which agency was doing the color-coding.
Friday’s winter storm forced county school officials to issue a code blue alert, which meant teachers and students got the day off from class.
But Homeland Security officials would have declared the day code yellow, citing what it said was a significant risk of terrorist attacks. And the crisp air would have made it a code green day for ozone.
And it’s not just Anne Arundel County. Colors now dictate everything from weather to safety alerts to drought severity, as governments, schools and business try to warn about potential dangers — particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It’s confusing,” said Carey Gaddis, spokeswoman for Carroll County schools. “I saw during the hurricane a county that was code something, and I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ ”
So while code blue means stay home from school in Anne Arundel, in Charles County it means schools are on guarded status and staff and students should watch for suspicious activities.
Baltimore residents need to fear bitter cold on code blue nights, but Middletown residents have the green light to water their grass — code blue in that Frederick County town means there are no water restrictions.
And in hospitals, a doctor who gets a code blue call must rush to a patient in cardiac arrest.
Keeping all those colors straight can be complicated. If people are not paying attention, they might mistake a yellow-to-orange jump in the air quality code for a jump in the Homeland Security Advisory System, and run out to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting for nothing.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments tried to clear up some of the confusion after officials there discovered that more and more groups were turning to codes. The council now advises that “air quality” should always be said with the color code to distinguish ozone warnings from the Homeland Security Advisory System and other color-coded advisories.
Joan Rohlfs, the council’s chief of air quality planning, said she has not heard of people confusing the warnings, but council officials were concerned that it could happen.
“Color coding is very common,” Rohlfs said. “It’s a very easy way of communicating to people a certain level of concern or emergency.”
Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said color coding is popular because people are accustomed to traffic lights — red meaning stop, or danger.
“People should be paying close attention,” McIntire said. “I’m sure these colors are being announced and issued in context.”