By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Mel Blizzard wants people to talk. He wants them to have information. And he'll tell you your safety depends on it.
"How can we have everyone at all times know what's happening in our city?" said Blizzard, head of the D.C. police department's Intelligence Fusion Division.
His job is to find new ways, often through technology, to keep critical people in the know, so if there's an attack or a disaster, communication will help -- rather than hinder -- the situation.
Blizzard is a good communicator. His cellphone runs out of juice twice a day, he said.
"His primary role is making sure we are connected in every way imaginable in threat detection and homeland security," said police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who brought Blizzard to the department in June.
Blizzard is the civilian head of the D.C. Fusion Center, which is housed in an undisclosed location, and acts as a secure clearinghouse for all threat-related information that affects the District.
Through the Fusion Center, Blizzard aims to set up a system so the District can be connected to all "critical partners" in the national capital region: 11 local jurisdictions, 2 states and 231 federal departments and agencies. He also works with the fire and health departments, various transportation agencies and other organizations, including the business community.
"Our job is to get information, analyze it and disseminate it to the right people to prevent terrorism and reduce crime," Blizzard said.
Blizzard, 55, is a retired Baltimore County police commander and Maryland's former manager of the Office of Domestic Preparedness.
His expertise in homeland security led to him meeting Lanier several years ago when she was head of the D.C. police homeland security unit. The two immediately had mutual respect for each other.
"Mel is very well known in the region and in federal circles," Lanier said. "He has incredible credibility. If Mel says he's going to do something, it's done."
One of his latest projects to keep police up-to-date is to install "temperature boards," huge electronic screens with real-time information about ongoing crimes, threats, natural disaster forecasts and other critical information.
About 28 screens should be up in district stations and other police buildings by the end of the year. Chicago and other cities are already using them.
The screens, which likely will not be on display for the public to see, will cost about $300,000 for the equipment, installation and programming.
Currently, the department depends on police radios and a pager system for alerts. "I want people to know what's going on," Blizzard said of police officers and commanders, who can help disseminate information to the public.
He said it is important to have a strong communications systems in place because "the experts say we're going to be dealing with [terrorist threats] for a long time."
Blizzard's supervisor, Assistant Chief Patrick Burke, said trust and accessibility are key in the intelligence sharing world.
"You need somebody when things are happening that you can trust," Burke said. "I know I can go to Mel, and he's going to have answers for me."
Blizzard also is in charge of the city's 92 surveillance cameras and the ShotSpotter gunshot location technology, a network of sound sensors atop buildings that immediately alert police of the sound of gunfire.
Blizzard, who lives on a farm in Carroll County, has been in law enforcement for 31 years.
He gained notoriety in March 2000 as head of Baltimore County's hostage negotiation team when Joseph Palczynski went on a rampage, killing four people and taking a family of three hostage for four days. It ended when two hostages escaped, a third was rescued, and Palczynski was shot to death by Baltimore County police.
Blizzard said that hostage negotiation was rewarding, because he could save people's lives, but that he became even more committed to helping people after the death of his son, Nathan, a decade ago in a car crash. Had he lived, his son would have been 30 this year.
"It changed me forever," Blizzard said. "I think about Nathan every day."
He said Nathan was committed to helping people through his passion for farming, and his tribute to his son is to try to make the world a better place.
"I became more hellbent on doing what I could to save other people," Blizzard said.