One of the primary findings of the 9/11 Commission was that our federal government can and must do a better job of sharing information within and across agencies, as well as across federal, state and local governments. In response to this problem and other concerns, the President and Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A primary goal of the agency was to monitor, coordinate and report on threats to the homeland, and the National Operations Center (NOC) was established within the agency to carry out this specific mission. Having to “build the plane while flying it” proved especially difficult, but today, under the leadership of Frank DiFalco, the National Operations Center is fulfilling its intended purpose and improving the security of the American people.
When DiFalco and his colleagues first tried to get the NOC up and running, they were obstructed by a wide range of problems that included interagency friction, cultural change, resource constraints and no blueprint to follow. In particular, one challenge was the need to get all-threats and all-hazards information from a wide variety of sources, including state and local officials and other federal agencies. Next was the problem of figuring out a way to consolidate and synthesize the incoming information so that it would be useful to senior leadership. Then there was the problem of figuring out how to share the information, at various classification levels, with all the appropriate homeland security partners. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the need to tackle these issues became apparent on the world stage. Before and after Katrina struck, the Center struggled to get the Secretary and other agencies information that was accurate, comprehensive and timely. In the aftermath of Katrina, many members of the National Operations Center became overwhelmed and some wanted to quit. But for Frank DiFalco, a 26-year veteran of the Marines, the proper response to Katrina was clear: work harder and smarter.
He took the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and applied them to make dramatic improvements to the National Operations Center. He stepped up his efforts to build relationships with vital partners, and he realigned processes to create a more coordinated response between state, local and federal officials. Today, the National Operations Center collects and fuses information before, during and after incidents from more than 35 federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local agencies, the private sector and international partners.
He was instrumental in developing the Common Operating Picture, a real-time, Web-based tool that links homeland security partners and enhances their ability to prevent, protect, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks and other disasters. The Common Operating Picture now serves as the cornerstone of the National Reporting System for the federal government and its state and local partners.
In another initiative borne from the experiences of Hurricane Katrina, DiFalco has led the effort to develop the DHS Secretary’s Crisis Action Team and serves as its current Director. The Crisis Action Team is a multi-agency organization that is designed to facilitate the Secretary’s ability to coordinate strategic-level operations for threats and incidents.
DiFalco’s new initiatives were exercised many times and put to the test in October 2007, when wildfires hit southern California. This time, the National Operations Center was ready. Coordination and information sharing between federal, state and local authorities, as well as the private sector, were exemplary, and the Center helped to ensure that the government response was timely and effective.
Frank DiFalco had a near impossible task. He had to help develop an interagency operations center and supporting systems in a way that satisfied a broad constituency ranging from the Secretary of Homeland Security to local emergency responders and the private sector. He faced many obstacles throughout the process, but he persevered and went on to build a unit that is innovative, continuously improving and making our government more effective and our people safer.