Fusion Centers & Public Health Agencies: Unlikely or Natural Partners?

At a recent Council on Foreign Relations event held on July 29, 2009, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano touted the importance of fusion centers in “ensuring that local law enforcement has better information necessary to protect our people, our neighborhoods, [and] our infrastructure.”  In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, top officials in the U.S. intelligence community conceived fusion centers as a means to break down stubborn information-sharing barriers that had existed between federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies.  These barriers were reinforced by a persistent Cold War “need to know” mentality, where information is considered so precious that only those with the most immediate and obvious needs should have access to it.

Today, however, “need to share” has all but replaced “need to know” as the success of the intelligence-led policing movement has motivated law-enforcement agencies to embrace information sharing and collaboration efforts with non-traditional partners.  As of July 2009, 72 fusion centers, primarily staffed by state and local law-enforcement personnel, had been stood up across the country.  DHS has been tasked with assisting states in developing and operating these centers through the State and Local Fusion Center Program (SLFCP).  There are also a growing number of DHS intelligence analysts (36 as of July 2009) working as federal liaisons at 28 of these centers.

Several centers are now seeking to include the fire, public health, and private sectors in the fusion process.  The main benefit of this collaboration is the ability for fusion-center operators to obtain a comprehensive threat perspective by collecting and analyzing information from a wide variety of sources.  One way to achieve this has been for fusion-center officials to look to state and local public-health agencies as natural partners.

Specifically, public-health personnel may have information or subject-matter expertise that can assist law-enforcement officials in their investigation of bioterrorism threats as well as naturally occurring diseases.  The 2008 ricin investigation in Las Vegas, the December 2008 white-powder mailings to several state governors’ offices, and the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak all illustrate the important role that public-health agencies play in preparedness and response efforts as well as law-enforcement investigations.  Fusion-center and public-health officials are beginning to recognize the value of cooperation and are establishing formal information-sharing arrangements.  For example, some fusion centers staff public health personnel, while others share access to information databases or hold regular meetings to discuss emerging threats or issues of concern.

Common Challenges in Collaboration Efforts

However, integrating public health into fusion-center operations, and vice versa, is a process rife with challenges.  First, and unsurprisingly foremost, are budgetary constraints.  Many fusion centers cannot afford to bring on additional staff members, especially ones outside normal law-enforcement functions.  In addition, personnel working at fusion centers may need to obtain government security clearances, a costly and often time-consuming process.

Another major obstacle stems from culture clash.  Public-health personnel may provide fusion centers with subject-matter expertise for investigations, access to public-health databases, or information regarding infected patients.  However, due to law enforcement’s traditional reluctance to share information with non-law enforcement entities, public-health agencies often receive little information in return (one example:  information regarding developing threats that may have a nexus to bioterrorism).  Without this information, public-health agencies are unable to properly plan for, or exercise, such threats to their communities.

A third point: Civil liberties groups have historically raised privacy concerns over fusion-center intelligence operations, an issue that could be compounded by the sharing of public-health information.  Despite these apparent challenges, there are several cases in which fusion centers and public-health entities have been able to collaborate successfully.

Successful Fusion-Center/Public-Health Collaboration

In 2005, the Los Angeles County, California, Department of Public Health (DPH) partnered with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Los Angeles Field Office and the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), the region’s fusion center, to develop and launch the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Technical Advisory Group (TAG).  The group serves as an early detection mechanism for public-health and law-enforcement personnel to share and mutually assess health and medical information that may have a nexus to terrorism or may suggest an emerging terror threat.  The TAG is composed of DPH medical and epidemiological experts as well as FBI and JRIC personnel.  The group activates as needed to assess health-related threats and to initiate joint DPH-FBI investigations, if warranted.

In addition, DPH has detailed public-health staff members to the JRIC to function as public-health WMD intelligence analysts.  These individuals alert the TAG of developing health threats and provide the TAG with relevant information and intelligence.  The analysts also serve as direct points of contact for DPH personnel when contacting the JRIC.  To date, the TAG has proved invaluable for the timely investigation of potential threats to the Los Angeles area.

In early 2007, the Palm Beach County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office initiated the development of the South Florida Virtual Fusion Center (SFVFC) to serve as a collaborative workspace for law-enforcement, public-health, fire, and other emergency-response personnel.  In April 2009, personnel from the Miami-Dade Police Department created a subpage on the SFVFC specific to the emerging H1N1 influenza threat.  The page contained news feeds from the state health department, links to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) information, national and local outbreak statistics by location, and information on pandemic influenza preparedness and safety measures.  Public-health, law-enforcement, fire, and emergency-management personnel accessed the page and uploaded their own relevant content.  The page served as a valuable resource for up-to-date information on the outbreak and helped local agencies prepare for the threat in their own jurisdictions.

The Way Forward: Overcoming Obstacles to Collaboration

The previous examples demonstrate some of the ways in which public-health departments and fusion centers can benefit from keeping a close and open relationship.  DHS has been promoting such a relationship with the recent creation of the Health Security Intelligence Enterprise (HSIE), an initiative aimed at integrating public-health and healthcare-community interests into the process of homeland-security information and intelligence exchange.  The goal of the HSIE is to enhance the preparedness level of public-health practitioners across the country while supporting an all-hazards approach to prevention, protection, response, and recovery.

One of the ways that DHS hopes to achieve this is through hosting workshops similar to the Health Security Intelligence Workshop, held in October 2008 in Denver, which brought together over 150 public-health, homeland-security, and intelligence personnel to discuss methods for improving information sharing and collaboration.  While these efforts, combined with the work of a handful of fusion centers, indicate promise, there is still a long road ahead for achieving the level of integration sought by proponents of a “need to share” intelligence framework.

Adam Bulava

Adam Bulava, a researcher for the Lessons Learned Information Sharing system of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, collects and analyzes information received from federal, state, and local agencies and organizations involved in homeland-security and emergency-preparedness initiatives, and combines his research data with critical knowledge received from subject-matter experts to create original LLIS.gov content. His principal research expertise on the LLIS program is in the area of intelligence and information sharing, with a particular focus on fusion centers and their development. Prior to joining the LLIS.gov team, Bulava served as a policy associate for Business Executives for National Security (BENS), where he focused primarily on intelligence-community issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree from The George Washington University, where he concentrated in counterterrorism and transnational security threats.



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