Disasters were not an e-gov priority

Feds, Congress had little support for emergency management e-gov

Two e-government projects, led by the Homeland Security Department and intended to create a framework for interoperable first responder data and wireless communications, have garnered scant support from federal agencies and Congress.

Congressional appropriators have worked to limit funding for the projects — Disaster Management and Safecom — by inserting restrictive language into spending bills and denying agencies' requests to shift promised money into those efforts. Lawmakers have legally prevented the Interior Department, long an opponent of the projects, from contributing to the initiatives during the current and next fiscal year, as the Office of Management and Budget would otherwise require.

In fiscal 2003 and 2004, a combination of executive and legislative branch actions ensured that only 73 percent of the programs' combined $105 million budget reached project coffers, according to data from a recent Government Accountability Office report.

But officials close to the projects say the root problem has been a lack of executive leadership in DHS' Federal Emergency Management Agency and hostility from partner agencies. FEMA executives did not respond to an interview request.

"Those two programs probably weren't FEMA's bread and butter when it came to their response to disaster," said Ron Miller, that agency's chief information officer from 2001 to 2002. "The hope was that they could become that some day."

FEMA was the project leader for Safecom almost from its start until 2003 when DHS transferred the project to its Science and Technology Directorate.

Safecom seeks to create interoperable wireless communication standards for state, local and federal first responders. The directorate is the program's fourth lead agency in a roster that includes FEMA and the Justice and Treasury departments. FEMA continues to lead Disaster Management, but its transfer to the directorate is pending.

Disaster Management is an effort to create interoperable data-exchange standards for first responders and a free set of Web- and desktop-based emergency response tools. FEMA already had a suite of tools in place, but program managers resisted integrating it into Disaster Management, Miller said.

Transferring the project to the directorate will reunite its oversight with Safecom, Miller said. "Essentially, they were supporting the same community," he said.

But in some ways, the transfer is also a step back.

The two projects "were never about the technology solutions because the technology has been out there for a long time," Miller said. They are more concerned with processes and stakeholder involvement, he said.

Focusing the programs on their technological aspects "is probably not going to get them everything they need," he added.

Internal FEMA resistance to cross-agency emergency preparedness programs spearheaded by the CIO was strong because agency divisions felt "they weren't their programs, they were something else," said a former FEMA official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Another perception was that states, rather than the federal government, should fund Disaster Management, the former official added. Federal officials "just looked at it as a bill they shouldn't have to pay."

But without an integrator like Disaster Management, state and local officials face an overwhelming number of federal programs, said Mark Forman, former OMB administrator of e-government and information technology.

"They don't have time to figure out who to talk to or what systems to use during a disaster," Forman said. "They need to be able to know who to go to when, for which part of the puzzle."

Partner agencies required to contribute to those programs under pass-the-hat funding also sometimes opposed the project. During 2002, Commerce Department CIO Tom Pyke left a Disaster Management strategy meeting early, according to several officials.

Pyke "expressed some pretty strong reservations about the program, and he was pretty passionate about those," Miller said.

Pyke did not respond to requests for comment.

Miller's departure from FEMA in 2002 did not bode well for Disaster Management, the former FEMA official said. Without a champion, responsibility for the project was pushed further down the executive ladder, sources said. "They pushed it all the way to the basement," said an official familiar with the program.

Warning before the storm

Eight days before Hurricane Katrina shredded much of the Gulf Coast, five state emergency management directors met privately with senior Homeland Security Department officials to protest what they saw as the weakening of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's ability to respond to natural disasters.

The directors met with DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson and FEMA Director Michael Brown in Washington, D.C., Aug. 21.

"We expressed our concern about natural disaster preparedness being pulled out of FEMA and put into a separate directorate within DHS," said Bruce Baughman, president of the National Emergency Management Association and director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

The directors also opposed spending money on terrorism-prevention activities at the expense of natural disaster preparedness programs, said David Liebersbach, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Katrina's ferocity and FEMA's disorganized and delayed rescue efforts have changed the situation, they said. "Katrina has put an exclamation point behind our concerns," Liebersbach said. "I'm a lot more confident that they will be addressed."

— Michael Arnone

NEXT STORY: 9/11 remembered...

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