DHS vows to fix information network

Feds are collaborating with state and local first responders to improve data sharing

Despite spending, info-sharing and networks are lacking

Homeland Security Department officials made promises to improve DHS’ network for sharing data with state and local emergency responders. The officials told lawmakers this month they could expect to see marked improvements a year from now.

DHS officials vowed to fix the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which has attracted few users since its creation in 2003. By improving program management, making greater use of existing systems to avoid duplication and providing more usable content, the department can fix the problems that the Government Accountability Office and others have identified, said Wayne Parent, deputy director of DHS’ Office of Operations Coordination.

GAO, however, remains skeptical that DHS can achieve dramatic improvements in a year. The department is in the early stages of the improvement process, so it has not defined milestones or a time frame for the changes, said David Powner, GAO’s director of information technology management issues.

Powner told lawmakers that DHS deployed HSIN before it knew whether similar data-sharing networks existed or what data first responders needed.

“HSIN has been poorly managed and poorly coordinated,” Powner said May 10 during testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee. DHS must integrate HSIN with the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program and other state and local law enforcement systems, he said.

In its haste to deploy HSIN after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the department failed to communicate with state and local organizations in planning and identifying what data-sharing capabilities were already available through RISS, Powner said.    
RISS has been an effective program in identifying and targeting criminal activities and sharing intelligence across multistate and international borders, said Donald Kennedy, executive director of the New England State Police Information Network, one of six RISS centers.

“Without the benefit of intelligence, local and state law enforcement cannot be expected to be active partners in protecting our communities from terrorism,” Kennedy said.

RISS worked with DHS and the Justice Department to publish documents to which authorized users can gain access through Really Simple Syndication feeds. But during a network upgrade last year, DHS disrupted HSIN’s automated feeds to RISS, which meant RISS technical staff members had to search manually for documents posted on various HSIN sites, Kennedy said.

Parent said DHS will reopen the bridge to RISS by July. DHS has established better collaboration internally and is beginning to coordinate its activities with those of regional networks, he said.

Local needs
For example, the Homeland Security Advisory Committee will identify state and local requirements for HSIN from representatives of those governments and the private sector. The group will meet for the first time in August, Parent said. DHS put out a call for members earlier this month.

Parent said HSIN will benefit from being part of the Information Sharing Environment, a collaborative effort of federal law enforcement and intelligence officials. An ISE working group is taking inventory of duplicative regional systems, a process that it will complete later this year, he said. ISE also provides content guidelines that will help HSIN share appropriate data with emergency responders.

“Quite frankly, if we had had an ISE type of effort in 2003, it would have been easier to make these decisions,” Parent said.
In addition to better understanding state and local data requirements, DHS is talking to the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Customs and Border Protection agency about their data needs.

Significant progress
“As we collect the requirements, we’re running them through an integrated planning tool,” Parent said. “We’re putting [the requirements] into the budget cycle timelines for this year and then the out years”— fiscal 2008 through 2013, Parent said. 

“I would say that when I’m here next year at this time, the odds are very good” that DHS will have significant progress to report, he said.
State fusion centers ask to see what feds seeState and local law enforcement agencies are hampered in their ability to reduce potential threats because of the lack of actionable information and intelligence, said Lee Miller, a first sergeant in the Virginia State Police.

“In all likelihood, a police officer in one of our communities will encounter a potential terrorist during their normal tour of duty, and without the information needed to perform their duties, they will not be able to identify the possible threat,” he told lawmakers at a recent hearing.

The Virginia Fusion Center taps into a variety of networks and databases, including the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) and Regional Information Sharing Systems. “The number of systems that are available cause duplication and do not promote an effective business process,” Miller said.

Federal, local and state initiatives must be integrated to meet the needs of everyone involved in homeland security, he said. Local and state analysts also need to have some access to information in classified systems, or the federal intelligence community should provide basic strategic information through a standard business process and network, such as HSIN, he said.

“If analysts are provided only a couple pieces of the puzzle, we will never be able to see the overall picture,” he said.

— Mary Mosquera

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