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Who understands the Naval Observatory’s terror-alert code?

At the north gate of the U.S. Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue NW sits a pair of huge white anchors, reminding passers-by of its service affiliation. Alongside it is an official government clock, which gives the time of day to the second and counts the days elapsed in the year.

Lately, neighbors have been noticing another informational display in the mix: a small, white A-frame sign reading “FPCON,” with a smaller sign attached that says “BRAVO.”

Nothing on the sign elaborates on what “FPCON: BRAVO” may mean. “I’ve been wondering what it is,” says John Wojnowski, the longtime picketer outside the Vatican Embassy across the street. Wojnowski, whose own signs denouncing the Catholic Church for priestly sexual abuse are on display opposite the Naval Observatory gates every evening ’til sundown, says he first spotted the new addition a few months ago.

According to the Navy, the sign announces the current risk of a terrorist attack on the observatory facility, which is also the site of the vice president’s residence. “FPCON” is the Defense Department’s acronym for Force Protection Condition, the name for a terror-alert system established in June of 2001; “BRAVO,” the letter B in the NATO phonetic alphabet, denotes mid-level danger.

The available alert levels start at “normal,” then range up from ALPHA, meaning there’s a general threat of terrorist activity, to DELTA, which is in effect either when an attack has occurred or when intelligence indicates an attack against a specific location is likely. The posted BRAVO alert means that an increased threat exists and brings with it “much tighter security,” says Naval Observatory spokesperson Geoff Chester. “There’s only one gate open to cars at the observatory, everyone gets searched, and we have to present proper credentials,” Chester says.

The FPCON system replaced a previous one known as the Terrorist Threat Condition, or Threatcon. Chester says that the change essentially swapped an old acronym for a new one, keeping the same meaning. “The important thing,” Chester says, “is we all know what ALPHA, BRAVO and CHARLIE alert status are across the entire [Defense Department].”

Along Massachusetts Avenue, though, the cryptic FPCON designation has kept residents guessing. On a December evening, a steady stream of locals passes the sign, walking or riding bikes, and the avenue is clogged with rush-hour traffic. “I thought it was something related to the military, Bravo Company,” says one woman walking a black Labrador retriever, who declines to give her name. “It just shows how uninformed we are.” Even one D.C.-based military officer is unfamiliar with the FPCON name.

On a Wednesday morning, Manuel Quinones, 31, waiting for his regular bus, says he thought FPCON was a special military project. “I wondered if it was something secret,” he says, “but it can’t be that secret, because it’s posted so publicly.”

It makes for a low-key sort of terror alert. Indeed, Chester says the sign has quietly been up near the gates or guardhouse since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, though it may have been shifted to a more visible position lately. And its message rarely changes. The alert level went to DELTA on the day of the attacks, Chester says, relaxed to CHARLIE for a few weeks, and has held firm at BRAVO ever since.

Despite the public posting, Chester says, Embassy Row joggers and motorists shouldn’t wait for the signboard to tell them what to do. “FPCON is just there to show the level of alert the Department of Defense is on,” he says. “As far as homeland security [goes], public agencies rely on a color-code system. We have our own separate set of requirements.” CP