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Fusion Centers May Strengthen Emergency Management

All-hazards focus by fusion centers improves emergency operations.

by / August 19, 2008

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

center allows rapid discovery of possible crimes by recording sounds, such as gunshots, and showing police their exact locations on a computer screen.

About 30 full-time detectives, police officers and supervisors staff CPIC. Each of the 35 suburban departments working with the center lends officers to help field calls for information. Additionally representatives from the FBI, Cook County Sheriff's Office and other federal agencies provide liaison personnel to the center.

According to Chicago Police Cmdr. David Sobczyk, head of the Deployment Operations Center, of which CPIC is an extension, focusing both on crime and terrorism strengthens the antiterrorism mission. Not only are everyday crimes sometimes precursors to a terrorist attack, but more importantly, having a center that is constantly being exercised 24/7 by responding to actual public safety incidents only makes staff more skilled and effective in dealing with a terrorist threat.

This combined mission focus is evident as soon as one enters the CPIC room. As well as computer screens on the walls, there are TVs that show streams of news 24/7 from American and overseas news channels, from places like Israel, China or Arab states.

While it continues to evolve and is improving all the time, the $1 million CPIC - funded with a homeland security grant, through seized drug money and from the Chicago PD's operational budget - has become a model for other jurisdictions. This prompted the DHS to engage Sobczyk to give presentations on CPIC to other law enforcement entities around the country.

Automating Information Streams
Much of the information flowing through CPIC like access to local and national crime databases, is nothing that a tech-savvy police officer couldn't access before. But previously it would have taken multiple searches and deliberate effort to search each source. CPIC has automated the process to a large extent, not only in terms of what databases are searched, but also added some artificial intelligence to determine information that might tie in and be relevant.

"This is changing the way that Chicago police investigate crimes," said Sobczyk. Previously officers would arrive at a crime scene with virtually no other information than what was given in the call. They would then have to return to the station, often the next day, to compile other information on file that might be relevant.

Now, through CPIC, when police are dispatched they immediately can refer to information provided by the center that's related to the location of the incident. Information that may be available includes: who has called the police from that location previously, recent arrests in the area, other incidents that have been reported and traffic tickets given recently on that block. This information helps direct the officers on how to approach the investigation and which questions to ask. "They aren't faced with the situation of the next day, saying to themselves, 'If only I had known this,'" said Sobczyk.

CPIC's effectiveness comes in adapting existing applications and technologies to the specific needs of policing and homeland security, Sobczyk explained. An example is the extensive use of GIS maps with multiple information layers. Once crime and security information is amalgamated, far greater insight is possible for CPIC personnel. For instance, the system will predict exactly where the next gang shooting is most likely to occur. While other things might also be predicted, the main focus other than terrorism right now is violent crime. Sobczyk points out that since CPIC was launched in April 2007, the homicide rate for Chicago dropped to its lowest level in 42 years. He views CPIC as one contributing factor, in no small part, because it's changing how violent crimes are responded to and investigated.

Video Brings It Home
Looking over the shoulder of an on-duty detective in the CPIC room, nothing drives home the fact that CPIC is

changing how Chicago's police operate as much as real-time video monitoring. Most of the cameras installed in city hot spots can be panned and zoomed from any PC in the room, meaning that officers can zero in on any suspicious activity in their vicinity. In one instance, a detective was watching a group of suspected gang members hanging around a street corner. The view is about the same as one would have from across the street - clear enough to see if something suspicious is going on.

It's this kind of power that has helped to sell CPIC's innovations to the Chicago police force at large. All it takes is officers responding to an incident and getting directions on where to look for evidence over their radios, for example, to begin to appreciate the power that CPIC brings to the table. "They will be looking around in the sky, wondering who's watching from where," explained Sobczyk.

So far, about 600 video cameras have been deployed, the large majority of the type that can be panned and zoomed; 200 more have been ordered. And Sobczyk thinks the number will continue to go up: "I don't see a time when the number is likely to be reduced," he said.

Interestingly citizens in Chicago haven't expressed much concern about the cameras going up in public spaces. If anything, they seem to be pleased that this new tool can help keep city streets safer.

Lessons for EOCs
A fusion center such as CPIC is probably more high-tech than most EOCs. However, most of what is installed is based on existing, off-the-shelf technology. This doesn't mean that it's technology that most law enforcement officers immediately recognize as valuable - until they see it in action.

It takes at least one technology champion to recognize how new technologies can move information availability and analysis to an entirely new level.

One simple lesson is to think in terms of the traditional information sources and how other sources might prove valuable if immediately available for instant access. This includes public sources of information like television news broadcasts and the Internet.

The fusion concept for information analysis and sharing is something that is applicable to many types of disaster response. Indeed, when we've seen failures like with Hurricane Katrina, a key part of the problem has been inadequate and untimely information to formulate and direct the complete response needed - without delays.

However, looking at CPIC as one example, possibly the most important lesson is that fusion centers work well because they are in constant operation. The officials staffing them from different agencies are working with each other in the same room on a regular basis, gaining familiarity and skill with their informational tools. As Sobczyk points out, this is how CPIC's law enforcement mission strengthens its anti-terrorism mission.

Coordination is a people issue, as much as it involves procedural policies. EOCs that go into operation only in a serious emergency are not likely to work as efficiently as a center that operates every day with its tools.

Interoperability through technology is not the end, but rather the beginning of increased cooperation and coordinated action.

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Blake Harris Contributing Editor
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