It's conventional wisdom that the first critical component of an emergency operations center (EOC) is the competency of the individuals who staff it - their ability to respond authoritatively to any possible disaster and their capacity to think outside the box when confronting the unexpected.
The second critical aspect of the EOC is its communications system. This needs to facilitate the inflow of information to ensure timely situational awareness and allow strategic and tactical orders to reach the right people without delays.
One long-standing barrier to this has been interoperability issues. In part, that has been a technical problem. But interoperability also implies effective coordination, and that doesn't always happen naturally in a stovepipe environment where agencies have separate command lines and cultures.
In the law enforcement and intelligence arena, the push has been to get various agencies effectively sharing information and working in tighter coordination - something they didn't always do before 9/11. This led to the creation of what the law enforcement community calls the "fusion center."
Though most think of homeland security intelligence functions when they think of the fusion center, the concept has always included an all-hazards approach, according to Andrew Lluberes, director of communications for the Intelligence and Analysis Office of Public Affairs, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
"The concept of the fusion center is to give the federal government and the states an opportunity to share information and intelligence, and that's not limited to terrorism," Lluberes said. "DHS's jurisdiction obviously includes terrorism, but a lot of other things as well: natural disasters chemical, weapons of mass destruction and just basic law enforcement."
Lluberes said some past natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, didn't have the benefit of working fusion centers. However, he said fusion centers are beginning to mature and emergency managers will benefit from their existence. "As a conduit to share information and intelligence, they certainly would be used in a future natural disaster," said Lluberes.
According to the DHS, there are nearly 60 fusion centers nationwide and more are being formed. Each has unique characteristics because of local priorities and concerns. A fusion center in Arizona or Texas, for example, might involve Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Drug Enforcement Administration officials because of their proximity to the Mexican border.
Though most fusion centers concentrate on law enforcement and homeland security matter, their operations can provide lessons for EOC managers.
Fusion of Data
The ultimate goal of any fusion center is to prevent terrorist attacks and to respond to natural disasters and man-made threats quickly and efficiently. But as a Congressional Research Service report also noted, there is no one model for how a center should be structured. Although many of the centers initially had purely counterterrorism goals, most have gravitated toward an all-crimes and even a broader all-hazards approach.
"Data fusion involves the exchange of information from different sources - including law enforcement, public safety and the private sector - and, with analysis, can result in meaningful and actionable intelligence and information," noted a Department of Justice guidelines paper. "The fusion process turns this information and intelligence into actionable knowledge. Fusion also allows relentless re-evaluation of existing data in context with new data in order to provide constant updates. The public safety and private-sector components are integral in the fusion process because they provide fusion centers with crime-related information, including risk and threat assessments, and subject-matter experts who can aid in threat identification."
Indeed, it's this informational process that extends the role of the fusion center from an antiterrorism focus to general law enforcement and perhaps other emergencies and disasters. One such fusion center is Chicago's Crime Prevention Information Center (CPIC), which works on the antiterrorism initiative, and general law enforcement. The