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Back to Archives | Back to February 2011 Contents 

Fusion Centers: Strengthening the Nation’s Homeland Security Enterprise

By Bart R. Johnson, Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Homeland Security



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ver the past year, the threat environment facing the United States has fundamentally evolved from one that primarily emanates from outside our borders to one that increasingly comes from within our communities. As recently as the May 1, 2010, attempted bombing in Times Square, New York City, the country’s homeland security and public safety leaders were reminded it is likely that an alert law enforcement officer, firefighter, or concerned citizen will be the first to see and report suspicious activity. This new threat environment means traditional intelligence community efforts and travel analyses may not be enough to identify domestically inspired terrorists, their planning, and their attacks. It makes it increasingly important for the federal government to partner with state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) law enforcement and homeland security officials to detect and prevent terrorist and criminal activity.

State and major urban area fusion centers play a critical role in this partnership, as they are focal points within the SLTT environment for the receipt, the analysis, the gathering, and the sharing of threat-related information. Fusion centers have the unique capability to gather and receive information shared by both the federal government and stakeholders within their areas of responsibility. Further, fusion centers also have access to suspicious activity reporting (SAR) information identified within their communities. Fusion centers also serve as partners to entities at all levels of government, including the Joint Terrorism Task Forces led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Working with these partners, fusion centers blend national intelligence with local, regional, and state information, as appropriate, to provide state and local context to help enhance the national threat picture. This additional context provided by fusion centers assists homeland security partners at all levels of government in identifying and addressing emerging threats.


Current Status of the National Network of Fusion Centers

The 2007 National Strategy for Information Sharing called for the development of “baseline operational standards” to help define fusion center capability requirements.1 Subsequently, the federal government, in collaboration with SLTT partners, published the 2008 Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers to establish these baseline operational standards.2

Figure 1. Critical Operational Capabilities
Receive: Ability to receive classified/unclassified information from federal partners
Analyze: Ability to assess local implications of threat information through formal risk assessment process
Disseminate: Ability to further disseminate threat information to other SLTT and private sector entities
Gather: Ability to gather locally generated information, aggregate it, analyze it, and share it with federal partners, as appropriate

During the 2010 National Fusion Center Conference, the federal government and fusion center leaders distilled the Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers into four critical operational capabilities (COCs) (see figure 1). Maturing fusion centers’ COCs is essential to building an integrated national network of fusion centers.

Given the evolving threat environment, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has renewed its commitment to support SLTT partners. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has called the national network of fusion centers “the centerpiece of state, local, [and] federal intelligence sharing for the future.”3 To ensure information sharing at all levels of government, the DHS and its federal partners are coordinating to provide the essential resources needed to support fusion centers nationwide.

The importance of fusion centers is twofold: they develop and disseminate products that assess local implications of national-level information, and they share critical state and local intelligence and information with the federal government and each other.

Fusion centers facilitate the sharing of homeland security and law enforcement information, collaborate to create a common understanding of this information, bridge the information flow gap between and among individual fusion centers and the federal government, and produce actionable intelligence. Throughout this process, fusion centers adhere to practices that ensure the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of Americans. Protection of those rights and information is critical to fusion centers’ ability to retain public trust and confidence.


Charting the Path Ahead: Fusion Center Baseline Capabilities Assessment

In an effort to evaluate the capabilities of the network and identify strategic areas for improvement and investment in the future, federal, state, and local officials launched the first formal assessment of fusion center baseline capabilities in April 2010. The 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 DHS, the FBI, and other interagency partners.

The BCA provided valuable data on the current state of the national network and helped identify those fusion center capabilities in need of enhancement. More specifically, the BCA aimed to

  • assess fusion centers’ capabilities in an effort to understand the overall maturity of the national network of fusion centers;
  • leverage the data gathered to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of federal support of fusion centers’ efforts to achieve and maintain baseline capabilities through investment planning and prioritized resource allocation;
  • establish strategic priorities and help identify gaps in capabilities at individual fusion centers and across the national network; and
  • aid fusion centers in reaching their full potential to serve as focal points within the SLTT environment for the receipt, the analysis, the gathering, and the sharing of threat-related information.

The BCA concluded in September 2010, and the DHS and its federal partners leveraged the data gathered during the BCA to develop both short- and long-term strategies to effectively mitigate the capability gaps identified. The short-term approach outlined immediate actions designed to assist fusion centers to execute the COCs during situations involving time-sensitive and emerging threat information. The DHS published the Short-Term Critical Operational Capabilities (COC) Gap Mitigation Guidebook4 to assist fusion centers in developing and implementing plans, policies, and standard operating procedures for executing the COCs. The DHS also provided templates, sample policies, workshops, training, and subject matter expert support to assist fusion centers in strengthening their capabilities.

Based on the foundation established by the short-term approach, the long-term COC gap mitigation activities will support fusion centers to fully achieve and maintain the COCs. The federal government is working to institute a repeatable assessment processand will host exercises with SLTT partners to evaluate the progress made towards achieving the COCs.



Fusion Center Focus

What a Fusion Center Is:
  • Focused on the fusion process. Fusion centers receive, analyze, disseminate, and gather threat-related information, in coordination with law enforcement and multidisciplinary partners.
  • Collaborative. A fusion center is an effort of two or more agencies that provides resources, expertise, and/or information, with the goal of maximizing the ability to detect, prevent, investigate, apprehend, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.
  • Flexible. Fusion center missions vary based on the environment in which the center operates; most have adopted an “all-crimes” approach, whereas others have also included an “all-hazards” approach.

What a Fusion Center Is Not:
  • Focused only on terrorism. Fusion centers possess broad capabilities used to assist in counterterrorism as well as “all-crimes” and “all-hazards” missions.
  • Owned by the federal government. Fusion centers are owned and operated by state and local entities, with support from the federal government.
  • A base for domestic spies. Fusion centers are committed to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans.

Institutionalizing the National Network

In order to ensure the efficient and effective sharing of homeland security and law enforcement information, the federal government, fusion centers, and their SLTT and private sector counterparts must collaboratively work together. Maturing the COCs within each fusion center is critical to building an integrated national network and is a shared responsibility throughout all tiers of government.

An integrated national network of fusion centers leads to three beneficial outcomes: (1) the federal government gains local context and situational awareness that can support homeland security and law enforcement efforts; (2) through a customized approach designed to meet the needs of their state and local jurisdictions, SLTT and private sector entities are able to receive national threat-related information; and (3) the syndication of information sharing leads to a more robust and holistic understanding of the national and local threat environment.

The federal government, fusion centers, and SLTT partners all play a role in building and maintaining an integrated national network of fusion centers. The federal government’s role in this relationship is to ensure the network operates effectively by providing deployed personnel, materials and resources, training, exercise support, security clearances, connectivity to federal systems, technical assistance, technology, and grant funding. Fusion centers must do their part by using these resources efficiently. As the Fusion Center Guidelines mandate, “It is critical for government to accomplish more with less. Fusion centers embody the core of collaboration, and as demands increase and resources decrease, fusion centers will become an effective tool to maximize available resources and build trusted relationships.”5

Strong relationships between SLTT partners and fusion centers will ensure fusion centers embody the core function of collaboration and enable them to effectively maximize available resources. There are various ways for law enforcement officers to build and strengthen their relationships with fusion centers. In order to help fusion centers build these critical relationships, the DHS/DOJ Fusion Process Technical Assistance Program recently published the Communications and Outreach Guidebook6 for fusion center stakeholders, which outlines recommendations for how fusion centers can effectively engage and support both internal customers and external audiences. This guidebook provides key recommendations for fusion centers on engaging law enforcement agencies within their jurisdictions. One example of effective outreach was a recent meeting at the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center, where more than 100 of the state’s top law enforcement leaders and national intelligence experts convened to align homeland security priorities. At the meeting, the state’s attorney general presented an expanded law enforcement toolbox of intelligence products that help burdened police departments deploy resources more efficiently.

Further, fusion centers are strengthening their relationships with frontline law enforcement officers through two efforts: DHS’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, which is a simple and effective program to engage the public and frontline law enforcement to identify and report indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats; and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI), which has created a standard process for law enforcement in jurisdictions across the country to identify and report suspicious activity. The SAR data collected by law enforcement and reported through fusion centers help fusion centers across the country, as well as the federal government, to identify broader trends in terrorist and criminal activity. In support of this initiative, the DOJ has worked closely with fusion centers to launch the Building Communities of Trust Initiative, which is an effort designed to develop relationships of trust among law enforcement, fusion centers, and the communities they serve. This initiative has allowed local law enforcement to explain how efforts, such as the NSI, will be implemented, while at the same time ensuring the protection of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Law enforcement agencies can also open a direct line of communication with fusion centers by assigning personnel to work directly with the fusion center or serve as fusion liaison officers, who can disseminate information distributed by the center to frontline law enforcement officers. Through relationships such as these, law enforcement officers and fusion center staff can work together to communicate local needs and establish a communication channel to ensure the effective and efficient flow of information.


Fusion Centers: A Shared Responsibility

In recent years, partners at all levels of government have reiterated the need for unified and coordinated support for fusion centers. Federal interagency partners, including the DHS, the DOJ, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the PM-ISE, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the Department of Defense, are committed to providing effective, efficient, and coordinated federal support to fusion centers. In turn, SLTT partners support their fusion centers by developing actionable intelligence, disseminating relevant information to homeland security partners, participating in the NSI, and supporting the maturation of their statewide fusion processes.

Both the federal government and fusion center directors must continue to build their partnership, raise awareness of the important role fusion centers play in homeland security, and share the important responsibility of maturing the national network of fusion centers. Fusion centers play a critical role in the sharing of information between the federal government and SLTT partners. As threats to the United States increasingly originate within its own communities, it is growing more important for DHS and SLTT partners to align efforts to strengthen fusion center capabilities. Moving forward, it is essential for both fusion centers and frontline law enforcement to be engaged in information sharing activities to address today’s evolving threat environment. ■


Notes:

1National Strategy for Information Sharing: Successes and Challenges in Improving Terrorism-Related Information Sharing (October 2007), A1-5, http://www.surfacetransportationisac.org/SupDocs/NSIS_book.pdf (accessed December 22, 2010).
2Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers (U.S. Department of Justice, September 2008), http://www.it.ojp.gov/documents/baselinecapabilitiesa.pdf (accessed December 22, 2010).
3Janet Napolitano, “Remarks to the National Fusion Center Conference,” (Kansas City, Mo., March 11, 2009).
4This document was made available through limited distribution to fusion center partners. For information or to request a copy, e-mail fusioncenter@ncirc.gov.
5Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Fusion Center Guidelines: Developing and Sharing Information and Intelligence in a New Era (August 2006), 4, http://it.ojp.gov/documents/fusion_center_guidelines.pdf (accessed December 22, 2010).
6This document was made available through limited distribution to fusion center partners. For information or to request a copy, e-mail fusioncenter@ncirc.gov.


Please cite as:

Bart R. Johnson, "Fusion Centers: Strenghtening the Nation's Homeland Security Enterprise," The Police Chief 78 (February 2011): 62-68.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 2, February 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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