The maturing of fusion centers

Sept. 12, 2011

In years past, “fusion” maybe didn’t mean much to law enforcement. It was more a nuclear physics term, or a word used to describe technology, or a maybe a name for a dance club or the music played inside. “Fusion” didn’t start working its way into the law enforcement vernacular until agencies sought to fight terrorism by closing gaps in information sharing. Fusion centers by name started popping up after 9/11. Today, every state has a fusion center, as well as 22 major urban areas.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “State and major urban fusion centers serve as focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector partners”.

DHS further explains fusion centers are owned and operated by state and local entities with support from federal partners in the form of deployed personnel, training, technical assistance, exercise support, security clearances, connectivity to federal systems, technology and grant funding.

Less than two years ago, the National Fusion Center Association was created to give fusion centers a unified voice, which has been heard from its seat on the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council and by weighing in on the new terrorism alert system. Despite these accomplishments, NFCA Executive Director W. Ross Ashley III and other officers of the nonprofit organization often find they need to explain what a fusion center is, not only to the public but to fusion center customers.

“We are still working on reaching out to the many public agencies in the emergency management community and letting them know the value we can provide to them.” As a former career intelligence officer, Ashley knows it can take many conversations between an intelligence officer and an operator before they develop a relationship in which the intelligence officer knows what the operator needs, and the operator knows what intelligence officer can give him.

“We’re still in those conversations,” he says, noting that moving intelligence information into the public safety arena is still relatively new. “We still have a lot of work to do...” Often in a negative context, Ashley hears people say, “If you’ve seen one fusion center, you’ve seen one fusion center.” NFCA embraces that notion. Ashley says a fusion center in Montana should and does look different than a fusion center in Virginia. Each has different constituency groups with different and varying needs, he explains.

An all-crimes approach   
One constant among fusion centers is that while they were set up to fight terrorism, they’ve also evolved to fight all crime. “There’s not a magical piece of terrorism information out there that says ‘this is a piece of terrorist information,’” Ashley explains. He quotes Mark Marshall, International Association of Chiefs of Police president and Smithfield (Virginia) Police Department chief, who said years ago that terrorism information and public safety exist inside of “chump crimes.”

A report by RTI International and published by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions found more than one in five terrorist plots were uncovered during investigations into seemingly unrelated crimes such as robberies, arson or parole violations, and encouraged training to ensure that ordinary crimes possibly connected to terrorism are recognized and properly investigated.

The report also said more than 80 percent of foiled terrorist plots between 1999 and 2009 resulted from observations by citizens or law enforcement officials, or from law enforcement investigations.

The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative and "If You See Something, Say Something" Campaign, or S4, are in line with this research. DHS’s S4 embraces the eyes and ears of the public as the nation’s really, true first observers, while the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s support for nationwide implementation of the SAR process embraces the fact that much of the information will come from state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement. Both are being used by fusion centers.

Protecting privacy
A milestone was reached by fusion centers this year when DHS announced in April that all of the operational fusion centers received letters from the DHS Chief Privacy Officer stating that their policies have been determined to be at least as comprehensive as the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) Privacy Guidelines.

Ashley says, “It’s critical that the public understand that every one of our fusion centers now has a nationally approved privacy policy. We’re ensuring that the information we are collecting is appropriate and not infringing on people’s civil rights and civil liberties. And we’re ensuring that information is not going to be used for nefarious reasons.

“It’s important that we reach out all stakeholders, so they’re fully aware that this information being collected is critical to national security.”

Success stories

While a number of success stories can be attributed to fusion centers, Ashley says the biggest success is the horizontal and vertical information sharing. “When is the last time you’ve seen an autonomous network stand up with federal support in a very successful way without a formal program?” he asks. “Here, you have a grassroots program where 72 fusion centers work together focusing on similar issues, sharing information horizontally and vertically in both directions. It’s a heck of a success story.”

Drawing attention to the good things being done by fusion centers, the annual National Fusion Center Conference, a gathering of some 1,000 fusion center, intelligence and law enforcement representatives, names a Fusion Center of the Year. This year the Tennessee Fusion Center (TFC) was selected for this honor “for its progress in analyzing and sharing terrorism and criminal information among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies across Tennessee at both the tactical and strategic levels.”

Housed within the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Fusion Center was created in 2007. In addition to its lead agencies, namely the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security, Tennessee Fusion Center partners include the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the Tennessee Department of Correction, the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, the National Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Regional Organized Crime Information Center, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.

Fusing technologies
Steven Hewitt, supervisory intelligence officer with the Tennessee Office of Homeland Security and co-director of the Tennessee Fusion Center, says the fusion center has worked to build its technology capabilities using DHS grant dollars and state dollars. One tool developed by the TFC brings suspicious activity reports to the fusion center, and allows analysts to summit them for the national SAR initiative if they meet specific criteria.

Tennessee’s statewide consolidated RMS, known as LEADR allows information of law enforcement relevance to be exchanged across the state. A central repository collects incident reports, offense reports, crash reports, traffic citations and supplemental reports related to criminal investigations. This information then can be used by fusion center analysts and law enforcement conducting criminal investigations in the field. Agencies who contribute criminal incident information are able to search all records within the consolidated RMS, which is an open source system.

Memex brings everything together by powering the TFC’s Tips and Leads-SAR criminal intelligence management.

The Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), provided free to fusion centers by DHS, serves as the TFC’s information sharing platform. State email accounts also are used to deliver information to fusion center customers.

The TFC is looking forward to the next generation of HSIN, which Hewitt points out has had a challenged past.

“It’s critical that DHS continue to fully support and fund the development of HSIN because it’s what everyone needs,” he says. “Other systems are very good, but they don’t allow various disciplines to share national threat information. HSIN offers a wider platform of information sharing for a lot of different customer bases that we desperately need in place as soon as possible.”

Law enforcement support

Throughout Tennessee, the Tennessee Fusion Center is working to further empower state and local law enforcement, as well as larger public safety communities. The Tennessee Fusion Center utilizes a working group concept to coordinate with the various customers to better understand their unique information needs and how the state fusion center can meet their criminal and homeland security-related information needs. Fusion centers share relevant federal alerts and warnings related to terrorism threats, emerging criminal threats, information from TBI’s criminal gang unit and human traffic analysis program, and other sources. Their analysts develop intelligence products and services using the federal, state and local information gathered at the center. Beyond that, the TFC provides direct law enforcement support. If needed, the TFC can step in and support an investigation with access to other sources of information, including another fusion center.

Hewitt, who worked with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Nashville for 4.5 years, says the same level of development and maturity that’s taking place in the nation’s fusion centers also needs to take place out in the field as well. “As Criminal Intelligence units continue to develop and mature their field-level operations, they will then be in a better position to leverage the strength of the nation’s fusion centers to meet their individual jurisdiction’s information needs,” he says. “That, in turn, will improve the flow of information from the field to the fusion center as well. It is this cycle of information flow that offers everyone the best opportunity to detect criminal activity that may have a nexus to terrorism activity. We truly believe this is a partnership among all who participate in information sharing in the state,” says Hewitt, who was a member of the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department for nearly 22 years.
The TFC wants to continue providing training to increase awareness of the benefits the fusion center can provide, and to increase networking. Online training is being looked at within the various jurisdictions, but Hewitt says nothing replaces bringing people together in the same room. The TFC hopes to continue bringing in DHS and Department of Justice instructors and keep costs down by hosting conferences in state parks.

Future Fusion
Moving fusion centers forward nationwide, Ashley says, “We’re at the point where we need to measure where we are.”

In September 2010, federal, state and local officials completed the first nationwide, in-depth assessment of fusion centers to evaluate fusion center capabilities, and to establish strategic priorities for federal government support. Data collected during the Baseline Capabilities Assessment is being used to inform efforts by the federal government and fusion centers to strengthen fusion center capabilities, mitigate capability gaps, and develop and deploy federal resources. The 2010 Baseline Capabilities Assessment (BCA) was conducted by the Office of the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE), in coordination with Fusion Center Directors, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and other federal interagency partners.

In the past, Ashley says fusion centers have grown autonomously with catch-as-catch-can federal funding. That’s changing. “Hopefully what we’re seeing is the beginning of a more formalized program,” says Ashley, who served as an assistant secretary of DHS during the recent Bush Administration, and oversaw the Homeland Security Grant Program.

Ashley points out the 2011 Homeland Security Grant Program requires each state to include an investment justification for each fusion center. As funds are dwindling, Ashley says prevention and protection need to be prioritized, and the National Fusion Center Association is working with its partners in Congress and at DHS to ensure that they are prioritized. Currently every state has a primary designated fusion center; some also have others designated by the governor.

Will there be more fusion centers?

Ashley says that depends on if the risk inside a community warrants a fusion process, and that need is not being served by another fusion center. He predicts the fusion process will expand as information and intelligence-led policing become more pervasive within the law enforcement community.

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at [email protected].


“Building on Clues: Examining Successes and Failures in Detecting U.S. Terrorist Plots 1999-2009” --

National Fusion Center Association

Fusion Center Guidelines

National Network of Fusion Centers

About the Author

Rebecca Kanable

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at [email protected].

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