“You have to remember, they have a very difficult charter, figuring out what they are to do,” says Rick Nelson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “They have demonstrated their value. The question is how do they continue to evolve to contribute to the security of the country.”

When the 9/11 Commission issued its recommendations in 2004 on how the country could guard against future attacks, a key finding was the need for more robust information sharing between state and local law enforcement agencies and federal intelligence agencies. The result was the creation of fusion centers, which were to form the centerpiece of the U.S. domestic antiterrorism strategy. The mission was to collaborate and combine resources, expertise and information with the goal of maximizing the ability to detect and prevent any criminal or domestic terrorism activity, and apprehend those who might be involved in confirmed plots.

Today there are 78 fusion centers that range in size from small three-person offices to massive centers with a staff of 250 officers, agents and analysts. Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and president of the National Fusion Center Association, says that of the 78 centers, 49 are state centers, another 26 operate in major urban areas and three are territorial.

The center in Northern California has a staff of 70 representing 23 different agencies, including state law enforcement agencies, the California Department of Justice, state highway patrol, local sheriffs, local police departments, the FBI, state and local emergency management agencies, and even some public health officials. In addition, the fusion center also includes operations in what’s known as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

If you’re thinking of a large room with banks of computer screens and digital maps, forget it. “We aren’t like the Tom Cruise movie, ‘Minority Report,’” Sena says. Rather, the staff works in cubicles, sifting through raw data, analyzing information and creating reports.

As broad and all-encompassing as it sounds, the center has been working well, Sena claims, and has cut down duplication of information sharing since its creation in 2007. That said, he admits that the center he runs and the 77 others around the country are still works in progress. “This is a new network,” he says. “It takes time to build an operation, including three to five years to develop the kind of analytical capability that a fusion center needs.”

Getting any kind of information sharing network up and running is never an easy task, and when it involves law enforcement agencies from three branches of government (four, if you include tribal), the difficulties and complexities are only magnified. Despite that challenge, some experts who track America’s intelligence programs are cautiously optimistic about the job fusion centers are doing. The question, of course, is how they are developing to protect the country against an ever-evolving threat.

That’s an important question because in the short time fusion centers have been around, they have come to have different purposes. States provide the bulk of the centers’ funding with the rest coming from DHS and other federal agencies. States also decide how the centers will operate, and with 50 of them, the results aren’t harmonious. “Some states have used them effectively and have the resources to put into the centers,” says CSIS’ Nelson. “Other states have not been able to realize the same value.”

With today’s fiscal constraints, the inconsistency of how fusion centers are funded has become even more problematic. Federal grant spending on state and local homeland security has been dropping steadily since 2010, according to the Federal Funds Information for States. Every state or local police officer in a fusion center means one less cop on the beat. That can add up when a fusion center is manned by dozens of officers. Last year, Utah’s legislature stripped out funding for its fusion center, only to restore it after pressure from local law enforcement agencies. Oregon’s two fusion centers are also in danger of closing due to a lack of grant funding from the federal government.

Inconsistent funding is a major strategic problem. “It’s hard to run an operation like this when you don’t know what your budget will be,” Sena says. “There’s no real funding strategy across the board.”

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.