Fusion Centers Face Staffing and Data Sharing Hurdles

Interest in all-hazards analysis at fusion centers is encouraging.

by / May 31, 2008

Fusion Mania
"Fusion" has become a popular word in our modern culture. It's amazing how often it's used: There's a car, the Ford Fusion; Gillette has a razor called Fusion; even Denny's restaurants has a drink line called Fusion Favorites.

So, it isn't surprising the federal government came up with the name "Fusion Center" for data hubs that are focal points for the gathering of information between state, regional and local law enforcement. They are designed to ensure information-sharing in an upward and downward fashion, so that when one level of government knows something, all levels also are made aware of the same information.

In the common vernacular, fusion centers would be called intelligence centers; in fact, fusion centers are staffed primarily with intelligence analysts. Within some communities, there can be sensitivity to using the term "intelligence analyst" since it smacks of governments spying on their citizenry.

Efforts to establish fusion centers have had their ups and downs. Early on, federal funding was made available for the establishment of fusion centers. The catch was that you couldn't spend the funding to hire permanent full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. I guess the thought process was that desks and computers would have the ability to work in a seamless fashion to better protect the nation. In actuality, it was the federal government's aversion to paying for more FTEs at the local and state levels that, in turn, would force federal officials to continue funding those new hires forever.

In some states, this led to "a work-around" by hiring contractors to work as intelligence analysts. An ensuing challenge emerged when fusion centers became de facto farm teams, training people in the art of intelligence-gathering analysis. Then, these individual contractors would leave to take permanent positions with other federal, state or local law enforcement agencies - where they enjoyed a more secure future, not to mention medical and retirement benefits.

There was a short respite when the hiring of intelligence analysts was allowed, but now with the federal fiscal year 2008 funding guidance, using federal funds for staffing is no longer permitted.

Despite the staffing challenges, there are beneficial trends emerging for fusion centers. One is the private sector contributing information and resources. I know of at least one instance in which a large private corporation has agreed to provide an intelligence analyst to a local fusion center.

And as an emergency manager, I'm heartened to see fusion centers also talking about being attuned to an "all-hazards" information gathering process. What that means in concrete terms remains to be seen, but the terminology is a step in the right direction.

The biggest challenge for fusion centers is still the sharing of information between organizations and all levels of government. You can put people from different law enforcement agencies in the same room, but if they share only the same coffee pot, you don't have fusion. Perhaps you only have the typical (con)fusion that has existed between agencies as they seek to protect turf and "win the game" of being the agency that brings down the next terrorist plot.

The end goal needs to be that we function together, and recognize that we have one fight and should have one team. The phrase goes that there is no "I" in team, but there is one in fusion. Perhaps we need to redefine a new type of "fuson" - one that doesn't have an "I."

Eric E. Holdeman Contributing Writer
Eric Holdeman is the former director for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management and now blogs at www.disaster-zone.com.
Platforms & Programs