System to speed victims' disaster aid

The Federal Emergency Management Agency this month plans to roll out a new system that will speed up the process of issuing grants and other types of assistance to victims during a disaster.

The National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS) will eliminate much of the paperwork FEMA uses to process checks for disaster victims and to communicate with other disaster-assistance organizations such as the American Red Cross.

"From the time we take an application over the phone to the time we issue the payment," FEMA can have a check electronically deposited into a person's account in three to five days, "as opposed to the current system, which [takes about] 10 days," said Dennis DeWalt, the agency's deputy associate director in the information technology services directorate.

FEMA plans to test NEMIS — an enterprisewide system of new hardware, software, telecommunications and other technology — after the first natural disaster that occurs after mid-May.

NEMIS is based on an agencywide intranet that is linked to other federal agencies and independent organizations such as the Red Cross, which will have access to FEMA's up-to-the-minute information and which can enter critical information into the intranet about a disaster as it unfolds.

Anteon Corp., which won the $71 million contract to implement NEMIS two years ago, has spent about $55 million to move FEMA from its legacy system to the new client/server architecture. According to Dave Weiser, program director for Anteon, NEMIS will "move FEMA into the 21st century of technology."

NEMIS' goal is to eliminate FEMA's paper-based system, which relies on telephones and faxes for transmitting information on property damage. "The teams are out there basically with pads and pencils taking notes, and they bring it all back to a paper file in our disaster office, and it stays there until the case is closed," DeWalt said.

NEMIS will support Preliminary Damage Assessment teams, which are sent into a disaster area and supplied with notebook computers. Using a modem, the teams will send information over FEMA's intranet about damage to personal and public property.

Once a decision to issue financial assistance has been made, the information will be sent to NEMIS' financial system, which will interface with the Treasury Department system that issues relief funds. For the first time, Treasury will be able to electronically deposit funds into victims' accounts.

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