Homeland security incidents like the tragic Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 have highlighted the importance of information sharing between federal, state and local governments and law enforcement.
Although fusion centers have answered the call to facilitate greater information sharing, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—and, specifically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—needs to more accurately account for federal funding provided to fusion centers.
The National Network of Fusion Centers was developed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to facilitate improved information sharing between federal, state and local law enforcement and emergency responders. As of June 2014, the network includes 78 fusion centers across 49 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.
Although generally state-owned and operated, fusion centers rely on the support of government agencies, such as DHS, for assistance with training, technical assistance, personnel and funding.
With the key role fusion centers play in sharing threat assessments among all levels of government and the private sector, GAO conducted an audit to assess whether federal agencies accurately account for the ongoing support provided by DHS and other federal agencies to fusion centers.
“As focal points within states and urban areas for the receipt, analysis, gathering and dissemination of law enforcement, homeland security and terrorism information, fusion centers are uniquely situated to help enhance the national threat picture and help protect the country,” the audit report said.
“As these centers continue to mature, it remainsimportant for DHS to identify the results that centers are achieving and how federal agencies can help support and leverage these centers.”
DHS assists fusion centers in assessing their baseline capabilities and identifying capability gaps through an annual assessment. The 2013 annual assessment indicated the centers received an average score of 92 out of 100—a 3 point improvement over the 2012 assessment—which revealed most centers have the policies and procedures in place to address gaps and capabilities.
Moreover, all 10 fusion center directors contacted by GAO asserted that the annual assessment program is an effective process to evaluate their capabilities against a uniform standard.
Although the scores represent the progress made by fusion centers in establishing baseline capabilities, they do not necessarily reflect the centers’ contribution to homeland security.
GAO stated that, “A center may report the successful completion of such activities and improve its overall assessment scores, but the scores do not reflect if the center effectively administered these activities or if they resulted in any considerable impact.”
However, DHS has developed new performance measures to assess fusion center contributions to homeland security. While DHS initially reported on five measures in the 2012 fusion center assessment, DHS has created 45 new performance measures to assess the impact of fusion centers on homeland security.
All of the new performance measures have not yet been implemented, so GAO determined that it is too early to measure whether they are effective.
Although DHS continues to show progress in assessing the capabilities and gaps of fusion centers, DHS still struggled to ensure that the grant funds intended for fusion centers are used to build and sustain baseline capabilities. GAO found DHS cannot accurately account for federal funds provided to states to support these centers.
In the past, DHS—and FEMA specifically—had challenges in tracking the amount of federal funding going to fusion centers. In particular, a 2012 congressional report expressed concern that DHS could not adequately oversee its financial support for fusion centers.
GAO stated, “DHS grant funding also remains an important component of federal support to fusion centers, but to date, FEMA has not been able to accurately account for and report on the amount of funds it has provided to centers.”
Since then, FEMAinitiated a new grant requirement to improve reporting on the federal grant funding going to fusion centers. FEMA began requiring grant applicants to categorize individual fusion center projects among six designated spending categories—equipment, exercises, management and administration, organization, planning and training.
While FEMA’s 2012 grant requirements improved the tracking of federal grants for fusion centers, GAO found the data are often unreliable since grantees have incorrectly categorized many projects. FEMA determined that states inaccurately categorized about $60 million in projects as related to fusion centers in 2012.
To address this issue, FEMA is planning additional efforts to help states better categorize fusion center projects and improve the reliability of grant reporting.
Last year, House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence Chairman Peter King (R-NY) released the Majority Staff Report, “The National Network of Fusion Centers,” detailing the committee’s findings and recommendations developed from a comprehensive study of fusions centers across the country.
The committee found that, “FEMA has long acknowledged significant gaps in its ability to provide an accurate accounting of grant funding going to fusion centers. FEMA’s inability to accurately account for these funds is unacceptable, and the committee has been closely monitoring FEMA’s progress to correct this serious deficiency.”
With FEMA’s history of struggling to accurately track grant funding provided to fusion centers, GAO recommended FEMA implement an additional mechanism to verify that states act in accordance with the guidance which could help FEMA ensure projects are properly classified and more accurately account for grant funding provided to the centers.
“FEMA’s proposed efforts to help ensure that grantees provide more accurate information on fusion center projects remain critical to improving reporting, but implementation of a specific mechanism to verify that states have acted in accordance with the forthcoming guidance would further help ensure that these efforts are achieving their intended purpose and fusion center grant reporting is reliable,” GAO concluded.