Over the past year, the threat environment facing our nation has evolved from one that primarily emanates from outside our borders to one that increasingly comes from within our communities. The country's homeland-security and public-safety leaders have been reminded — as recently as the May 1, 2010, attempted bombing in New York City's Times Square — that it is likely that an alert police officer, firefighter or concerned citizen will be the first to see and report suspicious activity.

This new threat environment means that traditional intelligence community efforts and travel analyses may not be enough to identify domestically inspired terrorists, their planning and their attacks. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly important for the federal government to partner with state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) law-enforcement and homeland-security officials to detect and prevent terrorist and criminal activity.

State and major urban area fusion centers play a critical role in this partnership, as they are focal points within the SLTT environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information. Fusion centers have the unique capability to gather and receive information shared by the federal government and various stakeholders within their areas of responsibility. Further, fusion centers also have access to suspicious activity reporting (SAR) information identified within their communities.

Such centers also serve as partners to entities at all levels of government, including the Joint Terrorism Task Forces led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Working with these partners, fusion centers blend national intelligence with local, regional, and state information as appropriate, in order to provide state and local context to enhance the national threat picture. This additional context provided by fusion centers assists homeland-security partners at all levels of government in identifying and addressing emerging threats.

The National Strategy for Information-Sharing, produced in October 2007 by the National Security Council, called for the development of baseline operational standards to help define fusion center capability requirements. Subsequently, the federal government, in collaboration with its SLTT partners, published Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers in 2008 to establish these baseline operational standards.

During the 2010 National Fusion Center Conference, federal government and fusion center leaders distilled these baseline capabilities into four critical operational capabilities (COCs). The maturation of these COCs is essential to building an integrated national network of fusion centers.

Given the evolving threat environment, DHS has renewed its commitment to support its SLTT partners. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called the national network "the centerpiece of state, local, [and] federal intelligence sharing for the future." To ensure that information-sharing occurs at all levels of government, the DHS and its federal partners are coordinating to provide the essential resources needed to support fusion centers nationwide.

The importance of fusion centers is two-fold: they develop and disseminate products that assess the local implications of national-level information; they also share critical state and local intelligence and information with the federal government and each other.

Fusion centers facilitate the sharing of homeland-security and law-enforcement information; collaborate to create a common understanding of this information; bridge the information-flow gap between individual fusion centers, as well as between such centers and the federal government; and produce actionable intelligence. Throughout this process, fusion centers adhere to practices that ensure the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of Americans. Protection of those rights and information is critical to fusion centers' ability to retain public trust and confidence.

To evaluate the capabilities of the network and identify strategic areas for improvement and investment in the future, federal, state, and local officials launched the first formal assessment of fusion center baseline capabilities in April 2010. The assessment was conducted by the Office of the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment and in coordination with fusion center directors, the DHS, the FBI and other interagency partners. It provided valuable data on the state of the national network at that time and helped identify the fusion center capabilities that needed to be enhanced. Specific goals of the assessment were as follows:

  • Assess fusion centers' capabilities in an effort to understand the overall maturity of the national network of fusion centers;
  • Leverage the data gathered to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of federal support of fusion centers' efforts to achieve and maintain baseline capabilities through investment planning and prioritized resource allocation;
  • Establish strategic priorities and help identify gaps in capabilities at individual fusion centers and across the national network;
  • Aid fusion centers in reaching their full potential to serve as focal points within the SLTT environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information.

The assessment concluded in September 2010, and the DHS and its federal partners leveraged the data gathered during the project to develop both short- and long-term strategies to effectively mitigate the capability gaps that were identified. The short-term approach outlined immediate actions designed to assist fusion centers in executing the COCs during situations involving time-sensitive and emerging threat information. As a result, the DHS published the Short-Term Critical Operational Capabilities (COC) Gap Mitigation Guidebook to assist fusion centers in developing and implementing plans, policies, and standard operating procedures for executing the COCs. It also provided templates, sample policies, workshops, training and subject- matter expert (SME) support to assist fusion centers in strengthening their capabilities.

Building on the foundation established by the short-term approach, the long-term gap-mitigation activities will focus on helping fusion centers fully achieve and maintain the COCs. The federal government is working to institute a repeatable assessment process and will host exercises with SLTT partners to evaluate the progress made toward achieving the COCs.

In order to ensure the efficient and effective sharing of homeland-security and law-enforcement information, the federal government, fusion centers, and their SLTT and private sector counterparts must work together. Maturing the COCs within each fusion center is critical to building an integrated national network and is a shared responsibility throughout all levels of government.

An integrated national network would provide three beneficial outcomes, as follows:

  • The federal government gains local context and situational awareness that can support homeland-security and law-enforcement efforts;
  • Through a customized approach designed to meet the needs of their state and local jurisdictions, SLTT and private sector entities are able to receive national threat-related information;
  • The syndication of information-sharing leads to a more robust and holistic understanding of the national and local threat environment.

The federal government, fusion centers and SLTT partners all play a role in building and maintaining an integrated national network of fusion centers. The federal government's role in this relationship is to ensure that the network operates effectively by providing deployed personnel, materials and resources, training, exercise support, security clearances, connectivity to federal systems, technical assistance, technology, and grant funding. Fusion centers must do their part by using these resources efficiently and to further leverage the resources and expertise of the SLTT partners within their area of responsibility. As the fusion center guidelines state, "It is critical for government to accomplish more with less. Fusion centers embody the core of collaboration, and as demands increase and resources decrease, fusion centers will become an effective tool to maximize available resources and build trusted relationships."

Strong relationships between SLTT partners and fusion centers will ensure that latter embody the core function of collaboration and enable them to effectively maximize available resources. There are various ways for law-enforcement officers, the fire service, public-health officials, and emergency managers to build and strengthen their relationships with fusion centers. In order to help fusion centers build these critical relationships, the DHS/DOJ Fusion Process Technical Assistance Program recently published the Communications and Outreach Guidebook for fusion center stakeholders, which outlines recommendations for how fusion centers can effectively engage and support both internal customers and external audiences.

This guidebook provides key recommendations for fusion centers regarding how to engage these multidisciplinary partners within their jurisdictions. One example of effective outreach was a recent meeting at the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center, where more than 100 of the state's law-enforcement and public-safety leaders, as well as national intelligence experts, convened to align homeland-security priorities. At the meeting, the state's attorney general presented an expanded toolbox of intelligence products that help burdened law-enforcement and public-safety agencies deploy resources more efficiently.

Further, fusion centers are strengthening their relationship with front-line personnel across multiple disciplines, including law enforcement, public safety, emergency management and response, and the fire service through two efforts: the DHS "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign, which is a simple and effective program designed to help the public and front-line personnel identify and report indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats; and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which has created a standard process for front-line law-enforcement personnel in jurisdictions across the country to identify and report suspicious activity.

The SAR data that is being collected and reported helps fusion centers across the country, as well as the federal government, identify broader trends in terrorist and criminal activity. In support of this initiative, the Department of Justice has worked closely with fusion centers to launch the Building Communities of Trust initiative, which is an effort designed to develop relationships of trust among law-enforcement, public-safety and homeland-security personnel; fusion centers; and the communities they serve. This initiative has helped these partners explain how efforts such as NSI will be implemented, while at the same time ensuring the protection of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.

Meanwhile, fire-service personnel can implement a direct line of communication with fusion centers by assigning personnel to work directly with such entities. Many fusion centers have onsite representatives from local fire departments and state fire marshal's offices; however, these partners also may serve as fusion liaison officers and in this role share relevant information and SARs with the fusion center, as well as access and further disseminate information distributed by the center.

Indeed, it is imperative that fire-service agencies across the country engage with FLO programs and build relationships with fusion center staff. The importance of formalizing such relationships is reflected in Fire Service Integration for Fusion Centers: An Appendix to the Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers. This document identifies recommended actions and guidance for fusion centers to effectively integrate the fire service into the fusion process. Through relationships such as these, fire-service personnel and fusion center staff can work together to communicate local needs and establish a communication channel to ensure the effective and efficient flow of information.

In recent years, partners at all levels of government have reiterated the need for unified and coordinated support for fusion centers. Federal interagency partners — including the DHS, DOJ, FBI, ODNI, PM-ISE, ONDCP and the Department of Defense — are committed to providing effective, efficient and coordinated support to fusion centers. In turn, fusion centers support their SLTT partners by developing actionable intelligence, disseminating relevant information to homeland-security and fire-service partners, participating in the nationwide SAR initiative, and supporting the maturation of their statewide fusion processes.

Both the federal government and fusion center directors must continue to build their partnerships, raise awareness of the important role that fusion centers play in homeland security, and share the important responsibility of maturing the national network of fusion centers. At the same time, fusion centers play a critical role in the sharing of information between the federal government and its SLTT partners. As threats to the homeland increasingly originate within our own communities, it is growing more important for DHS and SLTT partners to align efforts to strengthen fusion center capabilities. Moving forward, it is essential for fusion centers, law-enforcement officers, and fire-service personnel to be engaged in information-sharing activities to address today's evolving threat environment.

Bart R. Johnson is principal deputy under secretary for intelligence and analysis with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.