Homeland Security and Public Safety

Las Vegas Fusion Center Is a Model for Public-Private Collaboration

What happens in Las Vegas is filtered through unique layers of security and vetted by the fusion center.

Each year more than 30 million people are drawn to Nevada by Las Vegas’ luster. The self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capital of the World” is home to 18 of the world’s 25 largest hotels, and more than 19,000 conventions were held in the city in 2009. Las Vegas is without question a terrorist target. Beyond the cop on the street, there’s an effective, underlying layer of security that may be unprecedented, and it starts with the fusion center, the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center (SNCTC), an all-hazards, 24/7 model for public-private collaboration. 

In an unassuming building near McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, 14 different agencies from federal, state and local government work together toward one goal: to keep residents and tourists safe. One of three fusion centers in the state, the SNCTC stands out because it’s an all-hours operation that focuses not only on terrorism, but also on all crimes and hazards.

Conceived after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes 72 fusion centers across the nation that analyze and gather threat-related information from all levels of government. “It’s a multiagency group of folks who are sending information to their agencies and gathering it from their agencies,” said Lt. Dennis Domansky of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “It’s information sharing and looking to identify trends.”

The SNCTC opened in July 2007 and seeks to connect the dots between crimes that may look unrelated but could be precursors to a bigger event, while working with the community and tourism industry to collect information about suspicious activities. “It’s recognizing the type of trend that you might not recognize if everybody is working independently,” Domansky said.

No two fusion centers are identical — and there’s good reason to avoid a cookie-cutter approach. Although there is a baseline of what every fusion center should be able to do (e.g., receive, analyze and disseminate information while collaborating with other agencies), they can differ greatly. “Since every area is different, you have to be able to move things around and do different things,” said Sgt. Brian Hibbetts. “Our process wouldn’t work in Boise, Idaho.”

Because Sin City and its famous Strip attract more than 36 million visitors per year, a terrorist attack or large-scale disaster could cripple its tourism industry. The SNCTC works closely with the private sector, including hotels and casinos, to share information and collect reports about suspicious activity. Security and preparedness falls onto every organization in the Las Vegas Valley to ensure that people and critical infrastructure are kept safe.

Mining Information

The SNCTC is divided into two sections — intelligence collections and crime analysis — that together try to determine if suspicious reports or criminal activity are linked to something larger like preparation for a terrorist attack.

The intelligence collections section has overt and covert squads, according to Hibbetts, who leads the section. Officers are charged with following up on suspicious activity reports, collecting information in the field, conducting surveillance and source development.

The crime analysis group looks at all types of crime occurring in the valley, from robberies to rapes and murders, to analyze trends. The valley is home to about 2 million people and includes the Henderson Police Department, North Las Vegas Police Department, Boulder City Police Department and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, as well as the state police and federal agencies. A police officer who handles a robbery in one jurisdiction may be unaware that a similar type of robbery is happening in another area. This is where the crime analysis group steps in to fill the information gap.

“We do a lot of data mining for the criminal precursors to terrorism,” said Patrick Baldwin, manager of the crime analysis group. “Most terrorist acts have some type of crime component, either pre-observational surveillance, which could be trespassing or stealing certain chemicals.”

A recent example of the partnership between the two sections highlights how they work together. The crime analysis group saw a 700 percent increase in thefts of 20-pound propane tanks from 2007 to 2009, but wasn’t sure if the thefts were crime or terrorism related (the tanks could be used to make bombs). While the crime analysis group worked with terrorism analysts, the collections intelligence section interviewed people who were caught stealing propane tanks. “We were able to determine that it wasn’t terrorism related,” Hibbetts said. The thefts were attributed to the recession — people were selling them to recycling yards and using them to heat homes. However, without fusion center staff looking at police reports to identify trends or activities that could be related, the thefts could have not been connected — and officials wouldn’t learn until afterward that it was the precursor to a devastating event like a terrorist attack.

“That incident made me realize that we need to do a better job at mining our own data to find these things as they’re occurring and determining the relationships as we go along,” Baldwin said.

The SNCTC’s personnel are tasked with looking into and tracking everything that happens in the valley. Something that sounds like a standard occurrence to the average person, like a natural gas leak, can cause analysts’ internal alarms to sound. “Maybe a natural gas leak isn’t just a faulty pipe, or it’s someone planning something,” Domansky said. “It is looking at all those things and doing that analytical work trying to identify the worst-case scenario.”

Enlisting the Public

Collecting and following up on suspicious activity reports are another way the SNCTC seeks to prevent crimes and terrorism. The fusion center is one of 15 sites that have implemented the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which seeks to “implement common processes and policies for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing and sharing information about terrorism-related suspicious activities,” according to the federal government. Signs and billboards around Las Vegas encourage tourists and residents to “see something, say something,” and report suspicious activity at the Southern Nevada County Terrorism Trusted Information Exchange website, www.snctc.org, or through a homeland security hotline.

The SNCTC receives at least one suspicious activity report every day, and multiple reports during big events. Hibbetts said it’s difficult to distinguish between suspicious and regular activity. “We will get reports that this guy was taking pictures and he was facing a completely different direction than every other tourist,” he said. “They will say, ‘It looks like he was taking a picture of where the ceiling and the wall come together.’”

Officers will go to the location to follow up. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we are able to contact the person and they weren’t taking a picture of what we thought they were — or there was actually a legitimate reason for it,” Hibbetts said. “It’s that 1 percent of the time that makes us nervous.”

And since it’s such a small number of reports that aren’t linked back to legitimate activity, it’s tempting for officers to become complacent.

Domansky said regular updates keep officers on their toes. During an average day he receives two to three updates about situations that are being responded to or suspicious activity that has been reported. And a weekly update summarizes local, regional, national and worldwide terrorist events or suspicious activities.

Another way officers stay engaged is by having detectives go through rotations at the DHS National Operations Center in Washington, D.C. The SNCTC representative spends one to six months working with the federal department and learning about national and international events. “Then we can bring that back to our bosses and show them what is happening overseas and what we need to be looking for,” Hibbetts said.

The rotations not only benefit fusion center staff, they also help build relationships with DHS officials in the nation’s capital. When Hibbetts was working in Washington, D.C., in 2010, there was a school bus crash in Las Vegas, and DHS officials wanted to brief Secretary Janet Napolitano on the accident. Hibbetts learned from the SNCTC that it was a minor fender bender and no students were on board, so DHS representatives were able to tell Napolitano not to worry.

A True 24/7 Operation

When six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz, was shot during a Congress on Your Corner meeting in January in Tuscson, Ariz., phone calls to the area’s fusion center were forwarded to a 911 call center, said Baldwin. “A lot of [fusion centers] say that they are 24/7, but for a lot of them, their phone rings and it goes to a dispatching center,” he said. “But here you have a fusion center employee answering the phone all the time.”

The SNCTC’s watch desk is staffed around the clock and is located in the same area as the crime analysts, a large room filled with TV screens that show dispatch information, active law enforcement calls by area and national and local news. The watch desk representative also monitors patrol radio traffic and answers the counterterrorism hotline.

According to the DHS, most fusion centers have expanded beyond terrorism to focus on all crimes, while some, like the SNCTC, have taken their operations a step further with the all-hazards approach, including a built-in approach to monitoring natural disasters. While the center’s representatives track what’s happening in the Las Vegas area, they also follow weather updates and information about natural disasters through local and national news, as well as the National Weather Service. During severe weather, the center’s staff supplies emergency management officials and incident commanders with up-to-date information to help monitor the situation.

“Say there is a big storm coming and there is potential flooding in the Moapa Valley, which is 60 miles north,” Domansky said. “The police department, Clark County and the city will put together their incident management team to start developing a plan or even activate the [Emergency Operations Center] locally to monitor it, and that’s when the fusion center will start feeding information that way.”

The SNCTC also takes the all-crimes/all-hazards stance when it comes to protecting students and faculty in the Clark County School District, which is the fifth largest in the country. Hibbetts said that in 2008 there was a rash of violence in the valley and a high school student was shot and killed two blocks from his school. “We as an agency and as a fusion center said this has to stop and we have to come up with a better way to handle this,” he said.

A school district dispatcher was embedded in the fusion center to provide a link between the schools and police. “You put a dispatcher in front of the computer and he or she will be able to look at it and know everything that’s going on,” Hibbetts said. “They know the people they need to call and the buttons to push to make it happen.”

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.