In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, several million Americans in New Jersey wrestled with decisions that focused on such mundane but essential questions as where to buy gasoline, purchase food, and obtain prescribed medications. For public safety and private sector companies and agencies bent on advancing their continuity plans, the decisions made and actions taken seemed almost impossible in the face of what rapidly became a paramount challenge to the entire state. Sandy’s devastating impact on the electrical power grid, for example, with its second- and third-order effects, added further complications to returning to normal operations – and resulted in other adverse consequences felt statewide.
Two fundamental challenges were encountered and had to be dealt with from the start: (a) the limited availability of the validated “official” information needed to influence crucial lifeline decisions; and (b) the state’s relatively low capability to disseminate helpful information both quickly and effectively. This was despite the fact that over the past several years the state’s fusion center had been developing and maturing. The ability to receive, analyze, disseminate, and gather information – all of which actions, for fusion centers, are essential to the creation and development of critical operational capabilities – put the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (NJ ROIC) squarely in the middle of the efforts to prepare for and react to the rapidly approaching storm.
Fortunately, a previously defined relationship with the All Hazards Consortium, a multi-state sanctioned 501c3 nonprofit organization, facilitated the access to and use of commercial point-of-sale information for crucial commodities across New Jersey – and, not incidentally, gave analysts and fusion center liaison officers the ability to cull through essential information related to the sale and distribution of fuel, food, and pharmaceuticals.
Moreover, after adding its own helpful context to such information, the fusion center returned a significant volume of value-added information to its own law enforcement, public safety, and private sector constituents through established dissemination groups. The result was almost immediate – in effect, offering public safety and private sector companies and agencies the validated information they needed to make crucial decisions that ultimately helped local residents locate, obtain, and use life-essential commodities.
The first U.S. fusion centers started operations in the wake of 9/11, in New York, California, Arizona, and Georgia. Since that time, their focus has been primarily directed toward information collection and on analyzing the threats posed by terrorism. However, in an age heavily reliant on a consistent flow of timely and accurate information and intelligence, it has become clear that the fusion centers themselves can be appropriately aligned with the federal government’s Incident Command System in a joint effort to respond to and counter major adverse incidents and events. Sandy underscored how fusion centers can meet their own responsibilities in this area by addressing the needs of government agencies and helping the private sector effectively respond to and recover from a major disaster.
A Perfect Storm vs. Imperfect But Improving Response Capabilities
The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (NJ OEM) was established in December 1980 through what was prosaically described as Governor’s Executive Order 101. That order established the office within the New Jersey Division of State Police, Department of Law and Public Safety. Organizationally, the NJ OEM – which falls within the Emergency Management Section, Homeland Security Branch – was assigned responsibility for, among other duties: (a) coordinating all federal and state natural disaster assistance operations and resources; (b) enforcing authority over all emergency policies, laws, rules, and regulations; (c) organizing, staffing, and coordinating activities of the state's emergency operations center; and (d) facilitating the flow of information between and among New Jersey’s 21 county OEMs as well as other state and allied agencies.
In 2006, the state of New Jersey formed the NJ ROIC and opened the doors of its first fusion center, commonly referred to as “the ROCK.” The NJ ROIC, an interagency intelligence and information-sharing initiative, is designed primarily to provide the resources, professional expertise, and vital information needed to maximize the state’s ability to detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to all crimes and hazards that may adversely impact the state.
The NJ ROIC consists of several major components: (a) the Intelligence Watch and Warning Unit; (b) the Intelligence & Analysis – Threat Unit; (c) the Intelligence & Analysis – Crime Unit; (d) the Fusion Liaison & Intelligence Training Unit; and (e) the Information Sharing Unit. The Intelligence Watch and Warning Unit not only serves as the central notification point for all emergency operations throughout the state but also provides tactical information and operational intelligence through the utilization of a number of federal and state databases.
The principal policy connecting the state’s emergency management capability with its fusion center is rooted in the operations plan of the state emergency operations center. That plan identifies the NJ ROIC as the central conduit for information and intelligence exchange involving law enforcement and public safety agencies, senior government officials, and the private sector. The 24/7 Intelligence Watch and Warning Unit has the capacity to receive, analyze, and disseminate large quantities of information to more than 9,000 customers.
The unit’s day-to-day operations also have helped to solidify a close and effective partnership between emergency management agencies and the fusion center, making the transition from steady state to full activation an almost seamless effort within the state emergency operations center. In effect, this still evolving partnership between the state’s emergency management personnel and the fusion center has created a unique capability designed to become immediately and fully available during a significant disaster.
The Development of a “New Normalcy”
On 29 October 2012, Category 1 Hurricane Sandy smashed into the New Jersey coastline just outside of Atlantic City. Sandy, officially recognized after the fact as the largest Atlantic hurricane on record to hit that area, had a wind-span diameter of more than 1,000 miles. It made landfall during a high tide and a peak lunar cycle – a combination of worst-case conditions that escalated the storm’s wave heights and elevated the resulting storm surges to record levels. The sheer magnitude and force of the storm’s aftermath underscored the importance of the information dissemination and intelligence sharing essential to help the state emergency operations center in its response and recovery efforts. At the same time, the NJ ROIC was able to provide broader constituencies with the essential information needed to stimulate future resiliency plans and operations.
The NJ ROIC’s capabilities, usually aimed at alerting constituencies to potential threats posed by terrorism and/or other forms of violent crime, would now focus squarely on supporting local, state, and federal government agencies in the long list of response and recovery missions that followed the greatest natural disaster in the state’s history. Five critical mission areas quickly emerged for the fusion center to address – and, later, to incorporate as the vital objectives needed for leveraging fusion efforts during any future natural or manmade disaster.
Following is a brief summary of those mission areas, which for the foreseeable future will provide a helpful roadmap for other fusion centers to follow as they develop their own disaster intelligence plans.
- Enhanced information sharing & the dissemination of disaster information: (a) The NJ ROIC’s principal mission – to act as the primary focal point for information sharing throughout the state – positioned it uniquely to disseminate situation, weather, and traffic reports to the broad spectrum of customers requiring such information in New Jersey. (b) Working in partnership with the All Hazards Consortium, the NJ ROIC was able to provide the private sector with timely information on the current status of fuel, food, hotel, and pharmacy locations and levels of operation. Daily situational awareness messages were used to give the private sector this critical information.
- The parallel gathering & sharing of other categories of essential information: (a) Because local and county offices of emergency management were overwhelmed with requests for the resources needed to respond to the disaster, leaders were unable to provide a complete description of their own operating environments. Through use of the NJ ROIC’s Fusion Liaison Officer program, collection of the information needed to better understand the storm-torn environment was initiated. (b) The NJ ROIC’s ability to leverage the skills of 300 New Jersey State troopers, and 290 troopers from other states, to collect and share information about the environment was critical in determining where to assign police resources. (c) By leveraging numerous social media venues as well, the NJ ROIC also was able to validate and further disseminate timely information related to criminal activities.
- The production of disaster intelligence for senior government executives: (a) Daily intelligence briefings about the operating environment were provided to the senior commanders and state authorities directly responsible for the recovery. (b) To ensure that a measured amount of patrol resources were quickly detailed to affected areas, intelligence briefings about the criminal environment also were provided to the New Jersey Attorney’s General’s office.
- The production of disaster intelligence needed by field personnel: (a) The NJ ROIC provided law enforcement planners, commanders, and field personnel with the intelligence products needed to patrol storm-ravaged areas. (b) Similar intelligence briefings were provided in the field to ensure that changes in the operating environment were disseminated in a timely and relevant manner.
- The use of tightly focused collection efforts to support Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NJ OEM operations: (a) The NJ ROIC leveraged its relationship networks with local police chiefs to help FEMA, the NJ OEM, and the Army Corps of Engineers gather the information needed to provide preliminary assessments of the damage in storm-ravaged areas. (b) To help identify the areas most severely affected by the storm, the NJ ROIC conducted 49 preliminary damage assessments of the impact on Monmouth and Ocean counties.
Policy Matters & Future Disasters: A More Hopeful Aftermath
Despite the devastation that followed Sandy, the subsequent multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving demonstrated how the NJ ROIC can and would adapt during a disaster to meet the needs of its customers and maintain its role as the state’s primary information sharing point. The operational capabilities of the NJ ROIC during that time – which included collaboration and cooperation between multiple government and private sector agencies, sustained information flows, the use of appropriate leadership principles allowing for and encouraging creativity and, above all, careful and extremely detailed planning – helped to foster the collaborative environment needed for solving complex issues.
Before, during, and in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the NJ ROIC rose to the occasion by providing the platform needed by emergency managers to increase their information sharing capabilities, produce the intelligence needed to understand an ever changing environment, and effectively use state resources to help recover from a disaster that had devastated the entire state. The lessons learned from this experience are worthy of codifying into the daily operations of the NJ ROIC, which almost assuredly will be called upon again to address future incidents affecting the state.
Moreover, the experience gained by agencies throughout New Jersey in their efforts to rapidly and effectively deal with a major crisis may well serve as a primer for facilitating future discussions about the policy changes and training doctrine needed to meet future contingencies. Such discussions would: (a) promote the better leveraging of fusion centers needed to help recover from disasters; and (b) demonstrate how fusion centers can continue to mature and support the full spectrum of other homeland security missions and operations.
The Incident Command System obviously offers an appropriate foundation for the functional role played by intelligence, but the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy underscore the fact that reliable intelligence, combined with the quick sharing of accurate information, plays a much greater and better defined role in coping with future disasters.