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Counterterror, disaster response centers not sharing information

fpra/FlickrAn emergency operations center in Florida

Dozens of high-tech command centers built or beefed up throughout the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to promote better information sharing and disaster preparation have struggled to do just that.

A decade later, federal auditors found that two networks – one heavily focused on law enforcement and the other on emergency management – are often unaware of what the other is doing and in the process might be missing critical opportunities to improve efficiency.

Investigations after the hijackings revealed that critical information about what the attackers were planning had not been pieced together, in part because local, state and federal agencies frequently failed to communicate with one another. Hurricane Katrina, meanwhile, exposed weaknesses in how those same bureaucracies responded to both manmade and natural catastrophes.

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The response was to bolster two networks of specialized centers at great taxpayer expense. One network focused on collecting and analyzing information about possible terrorist threats and the other on disaster readiness and response. The latter often is activated only in the event of a catastrophe when multiple jurisdictions need to be represented in the same room.

“Some fusion centers are all-crimes oriented and do not consider emergency operations centers as partners in their operations,” according to a new report [PDF] from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. “Many emergency operations center officials view fusion centers as solely law enforcement entities and either do not see a need or do not know how to effectively coordinate with them.”

The inspector general’s report does not name names. But one fusion center director told auditors that there was no plan to coordinate with emergency management officials – “they just do it” in the event that coordination is needed. Another fusion center director simply didn’t see any connection between the two. Many of the centers “had made no attempts to establish relationships or communications,” according to the report.

In another region, there’s no telling if the partnerships that do exist truly work, “because there have been no major disasters.”

The inspector general concluded, among other things, that the two centers could jointly conduct training and exercises in order to better understand one another’s needs. The so-called intelligence "fusion centers" should adopt an “all-hazards” approach, the report continued, rather than limiting their scope to crime and terrorism, thereby ensuring that emergency responders are made aware if an event has the potential to result in mass casualties.

“Conversely, information received at an (emergency response center) that seems inconsequential could be part of a larger pattern, which may be recognized only if that information is sent to the fusion center for analysis,” the report said. 

One state held out as a best practice had both an emergency operations center and fusion center that fell under the same chain of command, meaning the two were almost entirely integrated with one another and information between them could flow more quickly and freely. 

No state has more intelligence fusion centers than California, with five of the 72 around the country that are formally recognized today by the federal government. They were first created in 2004 so local police, the FBI, private security professionals and telecommunications experts could meet at one table and swap tips about possible threats.  

The precise number of emergency response centers nationwide is less clear, but between 2010 and 2011, the Golden State’s congressional delegation pulled down $7.8 million in federal earmarks for more than a dozen of them in the cities of Elk Grove, Whittier, Compton, Pasadena and elsewhere.


View Fusion centers and EOCs in California in a larger map

So why aren’t the two networks more closely aligned with each other? One reason is that even though both centers rely heavily on funding from Washington, the Department of Homeland Security largely cannot tell them what to do.

“Although a fusion center can adopt either approach for its operations, the (crime-only) approach may sever part of the link between preparedness and response, a link that is critical to protecting American lives,” the auditors wrote.

A common saying among police is that “if you’ve seen one fusion center, you’ve seen one fusion center,” meaning they are all markedly different, according to Jack Tomarchio, a former deputy undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security.

“All of these fusion centers are in different geographical areas and face a different threat picture,” Tomarchio said. “You don’t want cookie-cutter fusion centers.” But the process for them to communicate needs to be as simplified as possible, he added.

Another issue is what the inspector general called “over-classification” and the designation of certain documents as “law enforcement sensitive,” which restricts who can access them at the local level.

The 9/11 Commission, which examined the hijackings, urged that intelligence reports be written in sharable formats, but efforts to free up information and reduce excessive government secrecy have been mixed. And the federal government isn’t the only one to blame.

“Just as the federal government has struggled in the past with over-classifying information, state and local jurisdictions have a similar tendency to over-classify information as law enforcement sensitive,” the report said. “In some cases, state laws prohibit the sharing of information outside the law enforcement community.”

No one’s quite sure how much money taxpayers have poured into both types of centers, partly because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for dispersing federal readiness dollars, has not historically kept close track. The best estimate for fusion centers appeared in a report [PDF] from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress: At least $425 million worth of homeland security grants had been spent building and sustaining them as of 2009.

As for emergency response centers, lawmakers over the last two fiscal years sponsored more than $87 million in earmarks for them nationwide, benefiting cities as diverse as Whitefish, Mont., and Port Gibson, Miss., according to an analysis of appropriations bills.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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