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'What's their connection to Pennsylvania?': Recent terror attacks place focus on information gathering

Within 20 minutes of a bomb exploding at a charity race in New Jersey, law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania were exchanging information to prevent similar attacks here.

Marcus Brown, director of the Pa. Office of Homeland Security, said a network of fusion centers serves as a hub for receiving and distributing information to law enforcement, first responders and more when emergencies occur. The recent terror attacks in New York and New Jersey tested the responsiveness of those fusion centers.

The problems began on Saturday morning, when a bomb was detonated at a U.S. Marine Corps charity race. Brown said information was sent out to fusion centers less than 30 minutes after the explosion occurred.

The first calls were to local police around Pennsylvania who might be providing security for similar military races or large gatherings. Luckily, Brown said, local, state and federal agencies prepare for these scenarios in tabletop exercises.

“When we have training and tabletop exercises with the local agencies, all of them are very dialed into the fact that this is not just a New York, D.C., Philadelphia issue anymore,” Brown said. “It’s something that could affect anybody.”

Later Saturday night, a bomb was exploded in New York City injuring 29 people. A second bomb was found in New York City and successfully diffused. On Monday, five pipe bombs were found in a backpack near an Elizabeth, NJ transit station.

Fusion centers operate as state and major urban area focal points for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between federal; state, local and private sector partners, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Pennsylvania’s fusion center is run by the Pennsylvania State Police, but it includes representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement, state agencies, first responders and private industries.

“It’s so important that the fusion center plays a role of being a collector of all the information, looking at it, doing an analysis on it and sending the information out so law enforcement across the state can act,” Brown said.

When two bombing suspects were identified, Brown said law enforcement began looking into any connection they may have with Pennsylvania.

“Even if the event doesn’t occur here, when they started getting evidence and facts and begin to identify who they believe are involved, that information is being pushed to Pennsylvania,” Brown said.

“We need to know is there a family member connected down here, is there a relative, is there a business, have they traveled to this state? What’s their connection to Pennsylvania?”

Brown stressed the importance of training when dealing with an emergency. Just last month, more than 700 people participated in a seminar on responding to terrorist attacks at large gatherings. People from New York and New Jersey attended the events.

“It’s not only what you do when the event occurs, you need to be doing things prior to that,” Brown said.

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