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I was sitting at home last night at about 10:20 PM when my cell phone rang with a very odd number in the caller ID. I stared at it for a moment trying to figure out who I knew with a phone number of 1-999-911-9999.
Curiosity overcame my better judgment and I answered the phone. The call was from the Collin County's new CodeRED system, to inform me that the Sheriff's Department was warning citizens of a severe thunderstorm that was to cross Collin County at 9:20 PM.
So, I received an emergency call telling me to expect severe thunderstorms with possibly large hail about an hour after the storms had already passed. By the time I got the call, the storms were almost completely past Collin County and a real threat to Rockwall, Hunt and Fannin Counties.
I thought of Dorothy getting a call to run for the tornado shelter an hour after watching munchkins dancing in Oz.
A few months ago, I had signed up with the county's brand new CodeRED system. The county's website promised, "a free, ultra high-speed telephone notification system that can deliver pre-recorded messages to home, business or cell phones in the event of a natural disaster or emergency."
The website explained the program - "CodeRED gives county officials a way to get emergency messages out to residents and businesses at a rate of 60,000 calls an hour, and can target calls to specific geographic areas for emergencies such as evacuation notices, flooding or a public health crisis.
The free service went online in August, and taps a variety of commercial phone databases for its initial sources of contact information, according to Kelley Stone, Collin County's Director of Homeland Security."
The CodeRED program is financed from state grant money given to the county's Homeland Security Department.
The Homeland Security Department gets a lot of grants. It has gotten millions of dollars in Federal and State grant money and has become a large operation with its own state of the art computerized, communications systems and control center, called the Fusion Center.
CodeRED is part of the Fusion System, housed in the North Central Texas Fusion Center, formerly called the Emergency Operations Center. Fusion operates out of a new facility financed by federal homeland security and bio-terrorism grants. Its goals include gathering intelligence, sharing intelligence, and coordinating emergency response to epidemics, terrorism incidents and disasters. On it's website the fusion system describes its purpose as, "the prevention and early warning of natural, accidental and intentional disasters in the region. The Fusion System is also used to support emergency response, field personnel, and investigations."
The Fusion concept has its critics - some who see it as a waste of money and some who see a threat to civil liberties. Last January, the Congressional Research Service issued a report critical of Fusion Centers. The report raised concerns over a lack of national standards in training and in mission of Fusion Centers. The CRS also pointed out that while the fusion centers are designed to prevent crime and terrorism, they are really more reactive than proactive - in other words they rarely predict, instead they respond to threats either real or perceived. The report also detailed concerns over civil liberties, privacy, effectiveness and sustainability.
"Fusion centers are somewhat controversial and mysterious — the public does not know much about what goes on inside. Privacy advocates and civil-liberties groups are concerned about the risks of consolidating threat information, but law enforcement authorities say they expect the benefits to outweigh the risks."
Federal Computer Week Online, Feb. 18, 2008
Some in the county have also questioned the sustainability of Homeland Security programs and Fusion Centers.
Most often, these programs and centers are created using federal and state grant money. But grant money often is not available to keep the projects running over time. Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff warned local officials of this when he stated, "We are not signing up to fund fusion centers in perpetuity. But we do want to use these grants to target resources to help fusion centers make the capital investment and training investment to come to maturity. And then, of course, we expect every community to continue to invest in sustaining these very important law enforcement tools." In other words, the feds will build them, but local tax dollars need to support them.
The volatility of grant financing is easily seen by looking at the county's budget and staffing levels for homeland security over the past few years.
Did terrorism threats become less dangerous in 2008? No, federal funding became harder to get as war related deficits ate up funds used for local projects.
These numbers do not tell the whole story. For example, the bio-terrorism budget for 2008 is about $48,000 and employs 12 people. What's not mentioned in the budget is a million dollar federal grant that is paying these wages. (Note: the 2007 staffing includes Courthouse Security - the 2008 number includes both bio-terrorism and courthouse security. Data from the 2005,2006,2007 and 2008 Collin County Budgets)
Fusion Center Guidelines, USDOJ, 2006
Fusion Centers: Issues and Options for Congress, Congressional Research Service, Jan., 2008
A new threat, a new institution: The fusion center, Federal Computer Week, Feb., 2008
Fusion Centers in Texas: "What we have here is a failure to communicate", Grits for Breakfast, July 2007
Fusion centers' might be scary if they actually work, Grits for Breakfast, April 3, 2008
Four potential risks to intelligence fusion centers, Homeland Stupidity, July, 2007
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