FEMA upgrades disaster-assistance system

Following the deluge of calls after Hurricane Georges ripped through Puerto Rico and across the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this month upgraded a system that helps reduce the time it takes for disaster victims to apply for and receive federal financial assistance.

In 1995 FEMA hired H.T.E. Inc., a software solutions provider in Lake Mary, Fla., to develop Teleregistration, which is software used to speed up the processing of emergency assistance applications so that inspections of property can be scheduled in less than a day or in many cases just a few hours. The system already has handled more than 1 million disaster victim applications. But the system had a difficult time handling the more than 10,000 calls FEMA received daily in the wake of Hurricane Georges, said Rick Walsh, division manager in H.T.E.'s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office. So FEMA has decided to upgrade its server from a 133 MHz Pentium-based dual-processor system from Micron Electronics Inc. to a 400 MHz Pentium-based dual-processor system from Compaq Computer Corp. The Compaq system provides more memory and capacity, Walsh said. The upgrade allows FEMA to handle more than 10,000 calls daily, possibly 50,000 if needed, Walsh said.

"The new server can do this without slowing down,'' Walsh said. "The old server could have handled more calls, but it would have been slower.''

How It Works

Teleregistration allows disaster victims to call (800) 462-9029 to register their needs. The software automatically matches victims' needs with appropriate federal programs for assistance, said Glenn Garcelon, branch chief for FEMA's National Processing Services Center, Denton, Texas. It takes only about six days to process each person's information, which is faster than the 19-day turnaround when the claims were processed manually.

"Until [1995], we filed everything by paper, and we were having to do the additional data entry step after an application was filled out,'' Garcelon said. "That meant we had to deal with all the issues of people's handwriting, accuracy, illegible multiple copies and then the data entry step, not to mention the whole place being awash with paper. If you lost a piece of paper, you'd lost the record.''

Call centers are located in several sites throughout the country, including California, Maryland, Puerto Rico, Virginia and Texas, to handle the influx of calls, Walsh said. Even though FEMA has up to 450 registrars at each site taking calls at any one time, the volume has been so high in the wake of Hurricane Georges that some people are getting a busy signal or are being told to call back.

To register their needs, victims answer questions from FEMA agents and give damage information and other data about their losses, and the information is saved to a database. Walsh said disaster victims also are mailed a hard copy of their conversation to check for accuracy.

"Now data is being done as the agent takes a call, and the many computations and separate matrices are calculated automatically," Garcelon said.

To avoid duplicate calls, Walsh said the Teleregistration software includes a feature that verifies Social Security numbers, home addresses and other relevant information. If similar information is detected, FEMA is alerted, he said.

To date, FEMA has provided $5.5 million in temporary housing assistance to Hurricane Georges victims in Puerto Rico, where an average of 6,500 cases are processed per day using Teleregistration.

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