Public Safety & Homeland Security

Las Vegas Fusion Center Is a Model for Public-Private Collaboration

What happens in Las Vegas is filtered through unique layers of security and vetted by the fusion center.

by , / May 24, 2011
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com/Andy Z. Shutterstock.com/Andy Z.

Each year more than 30 million people are drawn to Nevada by Las Vegas’ luster. The self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capital of the World” is home to 18 of the world’s 25 largest hotels, and more than 19,000 conventions were held in the city in 2009. Las Vegas is without question a terrorist target. Beyond the cop on the street, there’s an effective, underlying layer of security that may be unprecedented, and it starts with the fusion center, the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center (SNCTC), an all-hazards, 24/7 model for public-private collaboration. 

In an unassuming building near McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, 14 different agencies from federal, state and local government work together toward one goal: to keep residents and tourists safe. One of three fusion centers in the state, the SNCTC stands out because it’s an all-hours operation that focuses not only on terrorism, but also on all crimes and hazards.

Conceived after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes 72 fusion centers across the nation that analyze and gather threat-related information from all levels of government. “It’s a multiagency group of folks who are sending information to their agencies and gathering it from their agencies,” said Lt. Dennis Domansky of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “It’s information sharing and looking to identify trends.”

The SNCTC opened in July 2007 and seeks to connect the dots between crimes that may look unrelated but could be precursors to a bigger event, while working with the community and tourism industry to collect information about suspicious activities. “It’s recognizing the type of trend that you might not recognize if everybody is working independently,” Domansky said.

No two fusion centers are identical — and there’s good reason to avoid a cookie-cutter approach. Although there is a baseline of what every fusion center should be able to do (e.g., receive, analyze and disseminate information while collaborating with other agencies), they can differ greatly. “Since every area is different, you have to be able to move things around and do different things,” said Sgt. Brian Hibbetts. “Our process wouldn’t work in Boise, Idaho.”

Because Sin City and its famous Strip attract more than 36 million visitors per year, a terrorist attack or large-scale disaster could cripple its tourism industry. The SNCTC works closely with the private sector, including hotels and casinos, to share information and collect reports about suspicious activity. Security and preparedness falls onto every organization in the Las Vegas Valley to ensure that people and critical infrastructure are kept safe.


Mining Information


The SNCTC is divided into two sections — intelligence collections and crime analysis — that together try to determine if suspicious reports or criminal activity are linked to something larger like preparation for a terrorist attack.

The intelligence collections section has overt and covert squads, according to Hibbetts, who leads the section. Officers are charged with following up on suspicious activity reports, collecting information in the field, conducting surveillance and source development.

The crime analysis group looks at all types of crime occurring in the valley, from robberies to rapes and murders, to analyze trends. The valley is home to about 2 million people and includes the Henderson Police Department, North Las Vegas Police Department, Boulder City Police Department and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, as well as the state police and federal agencies. A police officer who handles a robbery in one jurisdiction may be unaware that a similar type of robbery is happening in another area. This is where the crime analysis group steps in to fill the information gap.

“We do a lot of data mining for the criminal precursors to terrorism,” said Patrick Baldwin, manager of the crime analysis group. “Most terrorist acts have some type of crime component, either pre-observational surveillance, which could be trespassing or stealing certain chemicals.”

A recent example of the partnership between the two sections highlights how they work together. The crime analysis group saw a 700 percent increase in thefts of 20-pound propane tanks from 2007 to 2009, but wasn’t sure if the thefts were crime or terrorism related (the tanks could be used to make bombs). While the crime analysis group worked with terrorism analysts, the collections intelligence section interviewed people who were caught stealing propane tanks. “We were able to determine that it wasn’t terrorism related,” Hibbetts said. The thefts were attributed to the recession — people were selling them to recycling yards and using them to heat homes. However, without fusion center staff looking at police reports to identify trends or activities that could be related, the thefts could have not been connected — and officials wouldn’t learn until afterward that it was the precursor to a devastating event like a terrorist attack.

“That incident made me realize that we need to do a better job at mining our own data to find these things as they’re occurring and determining the relationships as we go along,” Baldwin said.

The SNCTC’s personnel are tasked with looking into and tracking everything that happens in the valley. Something that sounds like a standard occurrence to the average person, like a natural gas leak, can cause analysts’ internal alarms to sound. “Maybe a natural gas leak isn’t just a faulty pipe, or it’s someone planning something,” Domansky said. “It is looking at all those things and doing that analytical work trying to identify the worst-case scenario.”


Enlisting the Public


Collecting and following up on suspicious activity reports are another way the SNCTC seeks to prevent crimes and terrorism. The fusion center is one of 15 sites that have implemented the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which seeks to “implement common processes and policies for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing and sharing information about terrorism-related suspicious activities,” according to the federal government. Signs and billboards around Las Vegas encourage tourists and residents to “see something, say something,” and report suspicious activity at the Southern Nevada County Terrorism Trusted Information Exchange website, www.snctc.org, or through a homeland security hotline.

The SNCTC receives at least one suspicious activity report every day, and multiple reports during big events. Hibbetts said it’s difficult to distinguish between suspicious and regular activity. “We will get reports that this guy was taking pictures and he was facing a completely different direction than every other tourist,” he said. “They will say, ‘It looks like he was taking a picture of where the ceiling and the wall come together.’”

Officers will go to the location to follow up. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we are able to contact the person and they weren’t taking a picture of what we thought they were — or there was actually a legitimate reason for it,” Hibbetts said. “It’s that 1 percent of the time that makes us nervous.”

And since it’s such a small number of reports that aren’t linked back to legitimate activity, it’s tempting for officers to become complacent.

Domansky said regular updates keep officers on their toes. During an average day he receives two to three updates about situations that are being responded to or suspicious activity that has been reported. And a weekly update summarizes local, regional, national and worldwide terrorist events or suspicious activities.

Another way officers stay engaged is by having detectives go through rotations at the DHS National Operations Center in Washington, D.C. The SNCTC representative spends one to six months working with the federal department and learning about national and international events. “Then we can bring that back to our bosses and show them what is happening overseas and what we need to be looking for,” Hibbetts said.

The rotations not only benefit fusion center staff, they also help build relationships with DHS officials in the nation’s capital. When Hibbetts was working in Washington, D.C., in 2010, there was a school bus crash in Las Vegas, and DHS officials wanted to brief Secretary Janet Napolitano on the accident. Hibbetts learned from the SNCTC that it was a minor fender bender and no students were on board, so DHS representatives were able to tell Napolitano not to worry.


A True 24/7 Operation


When six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz, was shot during a Congress on Your Corner meeting in January in Tuscson, Ariz., phone calls to the area’s fusion center were forwarded to a 911 call center, said Baldwin. “A lot of [fusion centers] say that they are 24/7, but for a lot of them, their phone rings and it goes to a dispatching center,” he said. “But here you have a fusion center employee answering the phone all the time.”

The SNCTC’s watch desk is staffed around the clock and is located in the same area as the crime analysts, a large room filled with TV screens that show dispatch information, active law enforcement calls by area and national and local news. The watch desk representative also monitors patrol radio traffic and answers the counterterrorism hotline.

According to the DHS, most fusion centers have expanded beyond terrorism to focus on all crimes, while some, like the SNCTC, have taken their operations a step further with the all-hazards approach, including a built-in approach to monitoring natural disasters. While the center’s representatives track what’s happening in the Las Vegas area, they also follow weather updates and information about natural disasters through local and national news, as well as the National Weather Service. During severe weather, the center’s staff supplies emergency management officials and incident commanders with up-to-date information to help monitor the situation.

“Say there is a big storm coming and there is potential flooding in the Moapa Valley, which is 60 miles north,” Domansky said. “The police department, Clark County and the city will put together their incident management team to start developing a plan or even activate the [Emergency Operations Center] locally to monitor it, and that’s when the fusion center will start feeding information that way.”

The SNCTC also takes the all-crimes/all-hazards stance when it comes to protecting students and faculty in the Clark County School District, which is the fifth largest in the country. Hibbetts said that in 2008 there was a rash of violence in the valley and a high school student was shot and killed two blocks from his school. “We as an agency and as a fusion center said this has to stop and we have to come up with a better way to handle this,” he said.

A school district dispatcher was embedded in the fusion center to provide a link between the schools and police. “You put a dispatcher in front of the computer and he or she will be able to look at it and know everything that’s going on,” Hibbetts said. “They know the people they need to call and the buttons to push to make it happen.”

Now when a school official hears a rumor about an upcoming fight, the information is reported to the school district police and the SNCTC’s watch desk. It’s then pushed out to the local police departments. Hibbetts said since this process has been in place, there hasn’t been a major incident at or near any of the schools.

The SNCTC also seeks to educate police officers to be force multipliers in the mission to mitigate and prevent terrorist activities through the terrorism liaison officers program. About 2,200 officers have completed the Web-based training that informs them what to look for and how to report the data. The fusion center doesn’t turn only to law enforcement officers as force multipliers — the casino and hotel industry plays a large part in keeping the Las Vegas area safe.


A Unique Kinship


Beyond the hired security personnel, there’s a layer of security within the hospitality industry that’s rather inconspicuous — and that’s by design. Las Vegas is a party town and while the goal is to protect its main asset — people —from harm, it has to do so without alarming visitors. There can’t be a uniformed cop on every street corner.

The layered security system is getting more and more elaborate, and there’s a set of strong relationships comprising SNCTC staff, the hospitality industry and others, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). The collaboration is unique partly because of the inherent need of the hospitality business to protect its assets, and because the industry understands that operating within a silo would limit the industry’s ability to protect its critical assets.

The importance of this mission is evidenced by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority funding a full-time analyst at the fusion center. The analyst analyzes suspicious activity information that comes in from the federal and state levels as well as from the resorts, and maintains direct contact with personnel at the resorts.

“Having someone from the private sector funded by the private sector sitting at the fusion center having access to a great deal of information, then messaging back and making sure there’s two-way flow of information — that has worked quite well,” said Dawn Scalici, deputy undersecretary for analysis at the DHS. “I won’t say it’s totally unique, but it really does stand out quite a bit in terms of the kind of private-sector interaction they have.”

The fusion center staff includes overt and covert personnel always on the lookout for something unusual. Add that to security personnel hired by individual hotels, along with the Las Vegas Metro Police, and you have several layers of security. But that’s not enough.

“We know we can’t do it alone,” Hibbetts said. “It can’t just be police.” 

It must be everyone, including maids, front desk clerks, valets, and recently, taxi cab drivers. They all receive training on what to look for and what to do with the information. It’s a network of eyes and ears not limited to security personnel.

“We’ve created this platform of sharing information not only among ourselves, but also with the industry and the fusion center,” said Tom Lozich, executive director of corporate security for MGM Resorts International. “When you look at this, security [personnel] is not the main component, nor should it be. Everybody has a role to play, and we’ve adapted a collaborative effort.”


See Something, Act


Whether it’s inherent in the nature of the Las Vegas community or whether it was forged through hard work, this network of collaboration thrives. One reason is the outreach done by the fusion center staff, Hibbetts said. “You get a whole lot more mileage out of walking into somebody’s office than you do picking up the phone.”

And having the card or phone number of someone to call when something doesn’t look right is crucial. “If we’re not out there making contacts with people, then the people don’t know who to call,” Domansky said. “They have information that is useful, but they often don’t know what to do with it.”

The outreach and training of private-sector personnel is a requirement that’s taken on a new dimension recently. The city has taken the See Something, Say Something campaign to heart, using a logo, created by a graphic designer at the MGM Grand, that has been adopted by the city.

And it goes beyond billboards. There’s a real effort to get nearly everyone in the hospitality industry involved, and to give them the impetus to keep their eyes and ears open and the confidence to report something unusual.

Fusion center staff used to conduct instructor-led training of private-sector personnel, but the training has gone online with DVDs and Web pages. All employees at the MGM Grand go through Web-led training, including watching Nevada’s Seven Signs of Terrorism, which explains what behavior might be out of the norm and could be preparation for a terrorist act.

The training gets more specific and drills down into what various staff members might look for depending on their jobs. There are videos for parking valets, guest room attendants, porters, technicians, guest services representatives and most recently cab drivers. 

Each video is tailored to the position held at the hotel. For instance, the bellhop might see something different than a maid would. “We tried to look at the hundreds of positions we have in our company,” Lozich said. “Which ones have the greatest opportunity to see as much as a security officer or a person in a surveillance room?”

Lozich called it a focused approach in that the valet outside parking cars will see something different than the guestroom attendant on the 33rd floor and should be trained as such. The DVDs underscore what might be suspicious activity that warrants reporting and how to report it. The DVDs avoid profiling individuals, and SNCTC personnel stress watching for suspicious activities rather than suspicious people.

The videos were developed in a collaborative effort with the industry, the fusion center and the Institute for Security Studies at UNLV. During development, business practices and the constraints of the hotel industry were taken into consideration. The industry can’t afford to put staff in a training room for hours at a time and provide a PowerPoint presentation. It can, however, provide looping video in a lunchroom or break room and train employees at opportune times.

Employees view the DVDs on preshifts, when one shift starts and another ends. And the point is driven home daily, from the billboards employees see as they drive to work to the looped “MeTV” on the video screens in the lunchrooms and elsewhere. “I call it media touch points,” Lozich said. “We understand posters aren’t the answer; it has to be a layered approach between our MeTV to the cards that we hand out to promote discussion between security and employees.”


Never Bite the Hand That Feeds


Anyone can view the video, Nevada’s Seven Signs of Terrorism, or fill out a Suspicious Activity Report at www.snctc.org. But employees of the MGM are coached to report any suspicious activity — an item out of place, a person acting strangely — to their supervisor or security personnel. If the supervisor or security officer believes it to be an urgent threat, he’ll place a call directly to the fusion center. Or the information is entered into Trapwire, a citywide database linking surveillance systems of most resorts and the fusion center.

Lozich said it’s critical that employees understand that there would never be negative repercussions from reporting something they deem suspicious. “We never bite the hand that feeds us. We never say, ‘Don’t call us again on this.’ We treat every one as important. If it’s important enough for an employee to report it to us, we’re going to say it’s important to us.”

The private sector is sometimes accused of hiding information that may be detrimental to business. However, everyone agreed that the stakes are too high to bury information that could thwart a terrorist attack. “We know, unfortunately, that one bad day for one of us is a bad day for all of us,” Lozich said. “That binds us together. Our view is we’d rather report something up front than have to suffer the consequences later. There’s been a change in that regard.”

Lozich said because the industry is the economic engine for the state, Las Vegas is actually like a small community. “We don’t have a lot of diverse infrastructure, manufacturing and everything else. That really helps when we have a common goal. We’re trying to make this the safest place possible.”

Fusion center personnel are careful in releasing data to the industry that might hurt a certain resort or business. “The problem we run into is sharing information with the hotel casino gets into privacy issues,” Hibbetts said. “Luckily we have a really good relationship with those entities, and they know that if they tell us something, we will not be telling their competitor.”

The information that goes online across the county via Trapwire usually includes general threats and doesn’t single out a resort. If there is a threat to a specific hotel, law enforcement will contact that hotel and inform security of the threats.

So could this model work elsewhere? Certainly, especially in other areas with tourist-based economies like Florida and Hawaii, said David Shepherd, CEO of the Readiness Resource Group, which works with UNLV on private-sector security programs.

“What is your business? People. What is your No. 1 asset? People. The model here can be replicated? The fusion center can be replicated. Listen to the people, don’t put them on a shelf and tell them you’ll get back with them.”
 
 


Sidebar: Staying in Touch on New Year's Eve


When Tom Lozich patrolled the Las Vegas streets on New Year’s Eve as a uniformed officer, he felt there was a discrepancy between what happened on the streets and what happened in the resort hotels. And he thought that disconnect was dangerous.

Now as executive director of corporate security for MGM Resorts International, he and his resort hotel industry partners have averted potential disaster by developing the Unified Intelligence Operation Center, an assemblage of personnel from the various resorts who gather and monitor goings-on inside and outside the resorts.

“When I was on the street with [the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department] it was almost as if there was a barrier put up, and what was going on in the hotels wasn’t being relayed or communicated back to the street and vice versa,” Lozich said. “How could an incident at a resort affect the revelers on the street? It could be catastrophic.”

This past New Year’s Eve, the group assembled at the Bellagio casino, each representative armed with a radio and e-mail access to and from the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center, command centers throughout the city and between resorts.

That communication keeps everyone abreast of where the resources are needed, keeping the public at the various resources safer. The information is analyzed and shared where appropriate. For example, this year a ticket scalper oversold a nightclub venue, causing a near riot. But law enforcement was quickly brought in to quell the situation before it got out of hand.

“It’s based on the Incident Command System model, which is underutilized by the private sector,” Lozich said. “Again, it illustrates the partnership that we have and how we work very closely with the fusion center.”
 

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.