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Information Sharing: Field Officers & Dispatch is Key to Fusion Center Success

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-07-02
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When we think of threat assessment, many law enforcement professionals would say fusion centers are the key.  The concept of fusion centers was first started by a number of law enforcement agencies shortly after the events of 9/11, with the goal of bringing multiple agencies together in a single facility to help drive information sharing.  The fusion center concept ensures there is a network in place to connect the dots and to provide actionable intelligence to law enforcement at all levels in an effort to identify and prevent terrorist events from occurring.  These centers have a lot of potential and will significantly enhance the security of this nation well into the future. 

The problem is that the demands being placed on fusion centers by agency heads and our political leaders are unrealistic.  Fusion centers are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to connecting the dots.  How does this pertain to dispatch personnel and those involved in emergency communications?  Information needs to be collected and routed through the intelligence chain to achieve success.   And that all starts with collection and moving of information from the street to the fusion center, which may be the most difficult aspect of the intelligence cycle to strengthen.  The details that dispatchers, first responders, and emergency communication staff encounter can be critical to the genesis of good intelligence. Their insights can make all the difference when it comes to deciding if something is amiss and escalating that information or hunch to the appropriate levels.

If the ultimate goal is to create actionable intelligence, we can imagine the key to a successful fusion center is the daily solicitation of information from local sources.  These sources include the cops on the street, narcotics officers, corrections staff, parole officers, as well as private sector partners that may be able to provide information.  As those front line personnel get into the habit of passing information along to the fusion center, our ability to do good threat assessment and analysis improves dramatically. One challenge is that line personnel are already being asked to do more with less.  So, here we are asking overburdened staff to take on more work, and it’s hard to motivate staff because there may not be obvious results of passing info to a fusion center.  Often, the results may not be known for months or even years.  The line officer can begin to feel that these efforts amount to nothing, so why continue to waste time collecting and sending information to the fusion center?

The reality is that those reports can be critically important, especially when it involves suspicious activity.  The increased theft or purchase of items, such as ammonium nitrate or hydrogen peroxide, may be indicators of the procurement phase of a much larger threat.  The continued surveillance of a government building, sports arena, or casino may be indicators of pre-planning.  If this information isn’t reported to a central location, the dots may never be connected to identify a possible threat.  Fusion centers cannot be expected to gather essentially every piece of information that may result in actionable intelligence.  A fusion center is simply a central repository for information to be gathered and analyzed, and actionable intelligence to be developed and disseminated to those who can prevent or disrupt a threat from being carried out.  Now there are many who will be asking, “Then what role does a fusion center play in the collection process?”  This is a good question, and here are a few thoughts about fostering the sharing of information.

  1. Establish a dialogue so the regional fusion center and state police and sheriff’s associations are talking
  2. Participate in statewide plans for the sharing of information between all levels of government.  Train and exercise to this plan in coordination with partner agencies
  3. Identify the technology that is needed to improve information sharing.  Look at better utilizing statewide information sharing systems rather than localized databases.  When this is done, it eliminates the development of multiple silos of information that inhibit information sharing
  4. Provide a simple method for the submission of Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) using multiple methods, including a SAR checkbox on CAD records, on police reports or add a public-facing web page that can be used by anyone to submit tips on illegal activity or suspicious situations
  5. Provide feedback to submitters of information whenever possible.  This will build confidence in the communication between the center and local law enforcement.  Line of duty staff start to realize their contributions are meaningful
  6. Provide actionable intelligence to those that have a need to know as quickly as possible to allow adequate time for them to act on the intelligence

Collection is the key to any intelligence organization’s success.  As law enforcement professionals, it is our responsibility to work diligently to support every aspect of the intelligence cycle – including the collection process, which is the key to analysis.  Without information, analysis cannot take place and the overall mission of our fusion centers suffers.  No one wants to be responsible for missing critical information or failing to thwart the next  terrorist attack, and if we can emphasize the collection of data in the field and get emergency communications professionals involved, our fusion centers are more likely to successfully disrupt and prevent an incident from occurring, and deliver on their anti-terrorism mission.

Dale Peet is a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police and the retired commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan’s largest and primary fusion center for homeland security. He now serves as Principal Consultant to the Memex Solutions Team at SAS (www.memex.com), the leading worldwide provider of intelligence management and data analytics solutions for law enforcement, military intelligence and commercial organizations. Dale helps agencies better manage suspicious activity reports and more fully participate in data sharing initiatives.  Dale can be reached by email here.

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