Twisters test FEMA system

A computer system developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist disaster victims in a timely manner appears to have endured its first test in the wake of tornadoes that ripped through Tennessee and Arkansas last month.

FEMA officials used the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS) to electronically process hundred of claims and approve emergency funding in less than two days after the storms.

Traditionally, the process would have been bogged down by days of paperwork, said Jeff Flading, project manager for NEMIS at Anteon Corp. But FEMA has gone paperless by upgrading its information technology infrastructure with a fully integrated system, Flading said.

For example, when Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida in 1992, FEMA could process only a limited number of claims at a time because its legacy IT system consisted of programs that did not work well together and required too much manual labor, said Dennis DeWalt, FEMA's deputy associate director for IT services.

FEMA used to collect data manually to determine the severity of a disaster. The agency's disaster workers had to decide what programs were appropriate for disaster victims and determine who would receive hand-delivered paperwork at the Treasury Department to compensate victims.

NEMIS, however, electronically gathers information from state and local officials to help the president determine whether a situation is a major disaster, DeWalt said. NEMIS also matches disaster victims with appropriate programs, sends their claims to Treasury for payment and stores claims in a library—all electronically.

"We can do that in a matter of four to five days or maybe even less,'' DeWalt said. "Before, it took 10 days.

"NEMIS will reduce the amount of labor that was involved,'' DeWalt said. "We will need fewer people to do the work, so NEMIS will save money. [NEMIS also] tends to be more consistent than people. It makes the process faster.''

NEMIS, which is in the first phase of its development, integrates two previously incompatible programs that made up FEMA's legacy IT system: teleregistration and Automated Construction Estimate (ACE). Teleregistration allows disaster victims to call a toll-free number to register their needs. The ACE program sends the claims to inspectors, who make home visits to assess damage.

NEMIS was developed by Anteon, a technology and engineering company in Fairfax, Va., to whom FEMA awarded a $26 million contract to do the job, said Dave Weiser, Anteon's program manager for NEMIS development. Weiser said Anteon developed NEMIS using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, a fully distributed Oracle8 database and ViewStar Corp.'s workflow mapping.

DeWalt said FEMA has up to five years and a $70 million budget to finish the first and second phases of NEMIS. Phase Two, which should be completed in two years, will be designed so that NEMIS can allow integration of new technologies and capabilities without disruption of FEMA's critical emergency management mission.

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