Fusion centers are about sharing among agencies. Photo iStock
FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Before Sept. 11, 2001, most law enforcement agencies really didn’t know the significance of the intelligence information they possessed. During my detective days, the dozen or so surrounding agencies in upstate New York held monthly intelligence meetings where we shared crime patterns, intel on recent parolees, MOs on the most recent burglaries or robberies. But for the most part, sharing crime info was on a voluntary basis and only among the larger municipal and county agencies. Very rarely did a Fed ever grace the presence of our little band of crime-fighting brothers, unless organized crime was involved or drug info was needed. Then we’d have an FBI or DEA agent at the table. Fusion centers have changed all that.
Since 2001, the importance of sharing intelligence information within the criminal justice system has become much more evident. One can only assume what might have become of the 9/11 hi-jackers had the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA and the other alphabet-soup agencies occupying office space in our nation’s capital shared their intelligence data on what our enemies had been planning/doing around the world.
I first heard about fusion centers at an FBI National Academy International Training Conference a few years ago. The presentation was interesting and informative, but the significance and importance didn’t hit home until an old buddy of mine was recently tapped out of retirement to head Southwest Florida’s newest fusion center. For those out there who’ve heard the term but really don’t know much about what fusion centers do, here’s the skinny.
What Is It?
The guidelines established for fusion centers span three phases of the criminal justice community: law enforcement intelligence, public safety and the private sector. Fusion centers are staffed by multi-agency personnel who are equipped with all the technological capabilities to “fuse” together millions of bits of information regarding suspicious activities, crime patterns, criminal enterprises like street or drug gangs, international and domestic terrorism activity, computer/cyber crime, even email attachments that discuss criminal activity. Presently, there are more than 70 fusion centers up and running around the U.S.
Old timers, like yours truly, probably remember the rumor about the imaginary “one-way” arrow/sign that adorned the door way at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.: “Everything comes in, nothing goes out.” Well, that rumor can finally be put to rest. The FBI is an integral part of the fusion center concept and sharing is now the rule. According to the FBI, more than 100,000 terrorism-related threats, reports of suspicious activity and police contacts with people on watch-lists have been disseminated among our country’s law enforcement agencies between 2004 and 2007. Southwest Florida’s fusion center will certainly add to that number.
The Florida Franchise
Tom Storrar is the new Director of Southwest Florida’s Fusion Center. Presently employing only four staff members, and currently operating under two DHS grants, the center is housed at the FBI’s Ft. Myers, Florida field office, and is still in the infancy stage or what Storrar calls a “virtual fusion center.” They’re still in the process of “tweaking, testing and debugging” the system. But just because the center is housed in the hallowed halls of the FBI, doesn’t mean it’s an FBI-only deal.
Storrar is the former Undersheriff of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. A life-long street warrior, Tom came up through the ranks—from street cop to narc to patrol sergeant to training lieutenant to uniform captain and finally to second-in-command of the 1,200-personnel agency.
I’ve known him as a friend and have networked with him professionally for over two decades. He’s worn the shirt and knows that it’s the rank-and-file troops who are the backbone of any law enforcement agency, and the intel arrow has to point both ways for the CJ system to work.
When Southwest Florida’s fusion center finally gets up and running at full capacity, not only will it provide real-time intel to the 10 counties it services, but it will be able to network with Miami’s and Orlando’s fully-functional fusion centers, the Florida Fusion Center housed at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s headquarters in Tallahassee, as well as the 70-plus other fusion centers around the country. Regional fusion centers in Tampa, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Pensacola are also being developed in addition to the one in Ft. Myers.
There’s no doubt that criminals have matured in their ability to use technology to further their efforts. Just surf the net for a few minutes, you’ll find out what I mean.
The fusion center concept can counter that effort, providing agencies use it. Close to 50 people across the public health and safety sector across Southwest Florida are using the Ft. Myers virtual fusion center, but once it gets up and running at full speed, the potential for intel sharing is limitless. Want street gang threats and patterns? It’s at your fingertips. Credit card scams? Just a click away. Sex crime patterns? No problem. Want to know who’s involved in shoplifting rings working your area? Here you go. If a Naples, Florida firefighter/arson investigator wants to know if “Eddie the Pyro from Pensacola” has a prodigy working in the Port Royal area, one call to the Ft. Myers fusion center will do the trick. However, like all computer-driven concepts, what comes out is only as good as what goes in.
For more information on Southwest Florida’s fusion center or fusion centers in general contact TomStorrar@fdle.state.fl.us.