Mar 05 2021

3 Ways to Improve Fusion Center Intelligence for Local Agencies

Follow these best practices to make the most of your fusion center operations.

Successful threat mitigation at the state and local levels requires three common ingredients: useful data, technology and trust. Fusion centers blend these elements together, resulting in the creation of actionable intelligence that local law enforcement agencies, health departments and other entities can use to enhance their preparedness, response, and mitigation strategies and capacity.

Fusion centers are intelligence hubs responsible for detecting, deterring, disrupting, preventing and mitigating the impact of drug activity, active shooters, transnational organized crime, cybercrimes, acts of terrorism, and other manmade and natural disasters. They are designed and strategically situated between local and federal agencies to continuously collect data from a wide variety of sources, conduct analysis to create knowledge, and share the results to inform decision-making.

These centers receive information from federal agencies and distill it into intelligence that can be used at the state, county and municipal levels. Conversely, fusion centers gather locally generated information and share it with federal agencies to incorporate into the national threat picture.

Created in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there are now more than 80 fusion centers in the United States, with at least one in each state. Since 9/11, fusion centers have promoted the use of data within the law enforcement, public health and emergency management communities, and have demonstrated its effectiveness. The way fusion centers analyze information has rapidly evolved since their inception. Today, artificial intelligence plays a major role in how fusion centers derive insights from large, disconnected data sets while still meeting ethical standards and privacy regulations.

Here are three steps fusion centers should take to arrive at better recommendations as they help local governments combat threats.

1. Focus on Cleansing Data Internally

Fusion center analysts are using social media streams, intelligence reports, news stories and other sources to inform operational and policy decisions at various levels of government. It is therefore critical for their analysts to ensure that the data and information they collect are clean, accurate and complete.

That’s not easy. Sometimes the data arrives in structured and unstructured bits and chunks from disparate sources. Other times, it’s replete with “eyes only” information meant for certain classification levels.

Analysts must cleanse the data by eliminating duplicate information, de-identifying sensitive data elements, merging data sets, and normalizing and geocoding addresses for mapping to effectively identify trends, patterns and anomalies. This process involves not only taking out top secret intelligence to establish handling classification levels, but also ensuring that federal data privacy laws are always adhered to.

Data has a shelf life and must remain complete and timely. Incomplete data sets can cause certain criminal activities to be underrepresented, which can lead to law enforcement agencies either over- or underestimating threats and ineffectively allocating resources. Data must also be fresh and relevant; agencies can’t afford to rely on outdated information, especially when dealing with rapidly unfolding events. Yet keeping data for historical learning and longitudinal studies is also important.

Data management is by far the most time- and resource-consuming fusion center process. It is essential to use technology to shorten the data-to-action timeline and ensure appropriate storage and access — especially during emergent situations.

DIVE DEEPER: Follow these best practices when setting up a fusion center.

2. Apply AI Tools to Better Analyze Data

Only after data is synergized and prepared can fusion centers begin using artificial intelligence models to make more informed and accurate recommendations to help state and local partners address crises and inform policy decisions.

Developing those conclusions requires a combination of storage, connectivity and computing power. Persistent memory storage solutions are designed specifically for AI.

This technology provides a way to hold massive amounts of data — in some cases, up to several terabytes in memory — to process very demanding workloads that provide results in minutes, not hours. In concert with persistent memory, data can be processed using high-performance computing clusters that create in-depth simulations and models, allowing analysts to derive better and faster intelligence from complex data sets. Finally, 5G wireless connectivity provides the ideal conduit for data sets to be delivered to the fusion center quickly, effectively supporting the need for real-time decision-making in the event of a crisis.

Some crises, such as terrorist attacks, are sudden and unexpected. Other situations, such as an approaching hurricane, may be anticipated but can still overwhelm resources and become a crisis. Still others, such as the opioid epidemic, can be persistent. Fusion centers can use the power of data and AI to identify opioid hotspots to target preventive services to those areas, which is what the New Jersey fusion center has done over the past couple of years.

Fusion centers can even use data to discover the sources of problems, such as illicit fentanyl distributors and pharmacies that overprescribe opioids or other drugs. Local agencies can use this information to interdict sources and mitigate the impact of drugs in affected areas, while more effectively deploying treatment resources and prioritizing treatment for those most in need.

3. Build Trust Between Fusion Centers and Critical Partners

Fusion centers were designed to improve the flow of information among federal, state and local agencies, but trust issues that plagued government agencies prior to the Sept. 11 attacks haven’t completely dissipated. Federal law enforcement agencies remain understandably concerned about how data is shared, and health departments are careful to follow HIPAA guidelines for maintaining patient privacy.

Yet great success has resulted from agencies building trust with one another — and even with outside partners. In Boston, for example, the local fusion center has built trusted relationships with area universities. The schools help fusion center analysts collect information from various sources and use it to help local agencies set up treatment clinics for drug addiction.

Everyone involved trusts they are being good stewards of the data. They are protecting personally identifiable information and adhering to required rules and regulations while still sharing valuable information — general crime statistics in a particular ZIP code, for example, or aggregate data about overdoses in a geographic location. The combination of good data governance and the careful cultivation of pertinent general information has led to effective outcomes for area citizens.

The Boston example is a perfect representation of how a fusion center is addressing problems today with an eye toward the future. While academia tends to focus on long-term strategies, fusion centers are more concerned with the here and now. By combining those mindsets, fusion centers are better positioned to tackle today’s issues while preparing to mitigate tomorrow’s challenges.

Establishing trust is critical, but it can open the floodgates of data, which can easily overwhelm any fusion center. Technology is essential for automating data management and analytical processes to enable fusion centers to improve the public safety, public health, emergency management and homeland security missions of their constituents.

EXPLORE: What steps need to be taken when your agency is deploying a fusion center?

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