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Back to Archives | Back to September 2011 Contents 

Technology Talk

Improving Situational Awareness

By David J. Roberts, Senior Program Manager, IACP Technology Center

ituational awareness typically refers to a person being aware of what is going on around him or her. As Toner notes, “Understanding is more than information gathering. It implies gathering the right information (all that is needed, but not too much), being able to analyze it, and making projections based on the analysis. In the best of all worlds, it also means being able to do something with the information (i.e., it is useful information).”1

Unlike any other event in recent history, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, demonstrated the critical importance of information sharing, intelligence analysis, and situational awareness for justice, public safety, and homeland security. In the wake of these devastating attacks several assessments revealed the splintered nature of intelligence gathering and analysis and the barriers to information sharing among agencies at all levels of government.2

Several initiatives emerged to address these critical issues over the past ten years, including (a) the publication of the National Strategy for Homeland Security,3 (b) the creation of the Department of Homeland Security,4 (c) the development of a National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan,5 (d) the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,6 and (e) the creation of fusion centers at state and local levels throughout the nation.7

State and local authorities recognized the value of organizing information and intelligence collection and analysis and began creating fusion centers. The Department of Homeland Security provided over $254 million in funding to state and local fusion centers 2004–2007 and, in some venues, provides personnel and access to the Homeland Security Data Network and terrorism-related information through the National Counterterrorism Center.8 By July 2009, 72 fusion centers existed around the nation in state and major urban areas.

Fusion centers are “a collaborative effort of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise, and information to the center with the goal of maximizing their ability to detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.”9 The centers operate as joint multijurisdictional facilities that can access, assimilate, and analyze data from multiple sources.10 A critical source of information for fusion centers is the incident, arrest, and investigative information regularly collected by local law enforcement agencies. While much of the initial focus of fusion centers revolved around counterterrorism and homeland security, that mission has expanded to support all crimes, all hazards, all threats.11

Raw data that are the natural product of daily law enforcement operations at state and local levels (i.e., incident reports, arrest reports, field interviews, and so on) are the fundamental currency that drives much of the intelligence fusion and information sharing efforts nationwide.12 As has been observed

The vast majority of information regarding domestic security is found at the local level. . . .In order for us to “connect the dots,” real information sharing is needed between the national government and the ends of the system. That is why the information management challenge the country faces is organizational as much as technical.13

The vast majority of local law enforcement agencies throughout the nation are relatively small, with 86 percent of the 17,876 state and local law enforcement agencies surveyed in 2004 employing fewer than 50 sworn officers, and approximately half (50.4 percent) employing fewer than 10 officers.14 The National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan recognized the challenge facing smaller agencies, noting

Many state law enforcement agencies and all federal agencies tasked with intelligence gathering and assessment responsibilities have established intelligence functions within their organizations. However, approximately 75 percent of the law enforcement agencies in the United States have less than 24 sworn officers, and more often than not, these agencies do not have staff dedicated to intelligence functions. Officers in these smaller, local agencies interact with the public in the communities they patrol on a daily basis. Providing local agencies with the tools and resources necessary for developing, gathering, accessing, receiving, and sharing intelligence information is critically important to improving public safety and homeland security.15

Law enforcement is an inherently dangerous occupation. At no time are officers more vulnerable than when they approach an unknown individual, whether during a traffic stop, criminal investigation, domestic violence call, or a possible mentally disturbed or impaired person. Often, the best protection officers have is access to information about the person with whom they are dealing, the address to which they are dispatched, the vehicle and the driver they have stopped, and other information regarding activities in their jurisdictions. This information provides officers with situational awareness that could significantly increase officer and public safety.

When initiating a traffic stop, standard operating procedure is for an officer to run the vehicle license plate through a number of databases to acquire as much knowledge as possible about the occupants of the vehicle before approaching. A query to determine if there are any outstanding wants or warrants on the registered owner of the vehicle, for example, could prompt the officer to request backup before approaching the vehicle. Once contact with the individual is initiated, the availability of additional information—specifically, verification of the identities of the vehicle occupants—will further increase situational awareness.

Law enforcement officers need tools to provide accurate, timely, complete information in the field. In addition, law enforcement agencies need access to a broad variety of technologies, such as geographic information systems (GIS) in order to build comprehensive situational awareness. Building enterprise-wide information sharing capabilities will enable agencies to improve situational awareness.

Officers can also increase situational awareness through the use of social media or available online services. First responders to a disturbance at a large public event, for example, may acquire critical location and tactical information from public “tweets” or posted photos or video from cell phones. Images from Google Earth could inform officers responding to a crime in progress of potential escape routes or exposure to hostile fire from suspects in or around a building. Real-time access to surveillance systems or traffic cameras via a handheld device could help officers target their response. However, the accuracy and reliability of information must be considered when utilizing public sources, especially in quickly developing situations. Policies governing the use of unsecure public information must be developed, and officers must be trained in the effective use of such tools.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are currently developing second-generation observational software that will operate on handheld devices and other platforms: “The purpose of the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) is to achieve joint, platform-level interoperability for aviation, ground vehicle and dismounted soldier, and Marine platforms. . . with the JBC-P the military hopes to enable seamless exchange of digital information across the services’ respective networks.”16 A similar approach for civil law enforcement could provide police officers with an invaluable set of tools to enhance officer safety and support their public safety mission.

Ultimately, the development of specific tools for law enforcement and emergency services that provide responders with consistent, secure, and reliable access to real-time information will greatly enhance situational awareness for frontline personnel and help ensure public and officer safety. ■


1Dr. Eric S. Toner, Creating Situational Awareness: A Systems Approach (white paper, Institute of Medicine Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Catastrophic Events, Washington, D.C., June 10,2009), (accessed August 24, 2011).
2National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), .pdf; and Markle Foundation Task Force, Creating a Trusted Network for Homeland Security (New York: Markle Foundation, December 2003), (both accessed August 24, 2011).
3White House, The National Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 2002), (accessed August 24, 2011).
4Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. no. 107–296, 116 Stat. 2135, 6 U.S.C. § 101 (November 25, 2002), (accessed August 24, 2011).
5Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, The National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan (U.S. Department of Justice, October 2003), (accessed August 24, 2011).
6Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Pub. L. 108-458, 50 U.S.C. 401 (December 17, 2004), (accessed August 24, 2011). In addition to creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the act also created the Information Sharing Environment (ISE), an Information Sharing Council, and a Program Manager for ISE (PMISE). Ibid., at §1016.
7Bureau 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 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, August 2006), (accessed August 24, 2011). “[T]he reason we have the Department of Homeland Security and the reason we now have Fusion Centers, which is a relatively new concept, is because we did not have the capacity as a country to connect the dots on isolated bits of intelligence prior to 9/11.” Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the National Fusion Center Conference in Kansas City, Mo. on March 11, 2009, (accessed August 24, 2011).
8For more information on the status of Department of Homeland Security fusion center support, see
9Fusion Center Guidelines, 12.
10It should be noted that fusion centers are not necessarily independent agencies residing in “brick and mortar” buildings, but rather they are analytic functions and sometimes virtual organizations housed within existing law enforcement organizations.
11“The guidelines should be used for homeland security, as well as all crimes and hazards.” Bureau of Justice Assistance, Fusion Center Guidelines, 2.
12The National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI), for example, relies on information contributed by state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as private industry and the general public. For more information about the NSI, see Similarly, the Law Enforcement National Data Exchange (N-DEx) program collects incident and case reports from law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, as well as booking and incarceration data and parole/probation information, in order to provide a central, national repository of critical information and analytic capabilities for state and local agencies. For more information about the N-DEx program, see
13National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 108th Cong. (April 1, 2003) (statement of Zoë Baird, president of the Markle Foundation), (accessed August 24, 2011).
14Brian A. Reaves, “Census of State and Local LawEnforcement Agencies, 2004,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, June 2007, NCJ 212749, (accessed August24, 2011).
15The National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, 1.
16George I. Seffers, “Situational Awareness In Hand,” SIGNAL (November 2010), (accesed
August 24, 2011).

Please cite as:

David J. Roberts, "Improving Situational Awareness," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 78 (September 2011): 76–77.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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