- By Megan Lisagor
- Mar 24, 2002
Six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all eyes are on the Federal
Emergency Management Agency the small, independent, 2,600-person organization
charged by the Bush administration with leading the nation's anti-terrorism
It appears to be a good fit. FEMA's mission to help the country prepare
for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters makes it better suited
than most agencies to lead the effort. "We've identified the one agency
that we think ought to be a permanent part of the infrastructure, dealing
with the first-responder community for all times in the future, and that
is going to be FEMA," said Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland
Security, at a February meeting of the National Governors Association.
"Many of you, because of [dealing with] natural disasters and difficulties
on a fairly regular basis, have a pretty good working relationship with
FEMA," Ridge told state officials. "And in that relationship, you deal with
the police, you deal with the fire departments, you deal with the emergency
medical personnel. So it seems to us there's a core competency and a very
important relationship that already exists."
But improving the country's response to terrorism won't be easy. In
the days after the September attacks, emergency workers needed up-to-date
information to direct rescue efforts. But with telephone service down in
some areas, an overwhelming volume of calls clogging the wireless phone
system and fire departments transmitting radio messages on different frequencies,
rescuers struggled to coordinate activities. Some were reduced to sending
runners with handwritten notes. In the end, lives were lost because of the
breakdown in communications, government officials say.
Some state and local officials wonder how the agency will handle its
expanded role. "They're a small organization, and this is a big task they've
been given," said George Foresman, Virginia's deputy assistant to the governor
for commonwealth preparedness.
To help get the job done, the administration is asking Congress to more
than double the agency's funding for fiscal 2003 to $6.6 billion. The proposal
sets aside $175.6 million for information technology a 6 percent increase
over fiscal 2002 funding.
"I was always geared toward realignment," said Ronald Miller, chief
information officer and assistant director of the IT Services Directorate
at FEMA. "Sept. 11 made it absolutely critical that we do it.... I don't
think our role has changed as much in substance as in scope."
By all accounts, the agency has a much bigger responsibility for coordination,
forcing it to juggle new external tasks with old internal problems. "Traditionally,
FEMA has been viewed as Johnny-on-the-scene, focused on disaster relief,"
said Gila Bronner, president of Bronner Group LLC, a Chicago-based government
consulting firm specializing in e-government. "Now it's taking a leadership
role to help enable intergovernmental data sharing. The states [and counties]
expect resources and support and, perhaps, some vision and guidance."
Communications: Top Priority
Founded in 1979, FEMA supports the emergency management community with
a range of relief, recovery and mitigation programs. The agency responded
to 45 major catastrophes last year, including earthquakes, floods and tornadoes.
"We've always been focused on natural disasters," Miller said. "We know
the seasons in which those occur. We don't have the luxury of ebb and flow
now. Since Sept. 11, we've been going full blow, and we've been told that's
not going to change."
Because an attack could strike at any time, the agency is on constant
alert. "The pace, I think, is very different," said Dennis Green, FEMA's
program manager for e-government. "There is more of a drive to get things
Right now, managing communications is the top priority. FEMA Director
Joe Allbaugh sees it as the agency's most important IT issue, Miller said.
"The essence of a response is communications," said David Jordan, chief
information security officer for Arling.ton County, Va. "Without communications,
you can't get anything going."
The budget request earmarks $3.5 billion for new equipment and training
to enhance state and local readiness for attacks. As part of the proposal,
FEMA would allocate $7 million for grants to states with at least 75 percent
going to local governments for secure communications systems with video,
voice and data capabilities.
"It would allow us to pass on more detail than what we'd be able to
do with open channels," Miller said.
The grants could also be used for other upgrades. The goal is to get
first responders firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians
to the point where they're not relying on communications networks in damaged
areas, which was the case in September.
During the rescue efforts at the Pentagon, "we were still using existing
technologies," Jordan said. "This was a wake-up call. We're looking at what
we can do without breaking the bank to be better prepared for another terrorist
The budget awaits approval from Congress, and "while there's a will,
there may not necessarily be a way at the moment," Bronner noted. Even so,
FEMA officials are assuming they have to establish equipment standards by
the end of the fiscal year, Miller said. Then the agency's 10 regional offices
will offer training for state and local rescuers.
Some groups are already investing in new technology. For example, the
American Red Cross, one of FEMA's major partners, successfully implemented
its Disaster Services Technology Integration Program in September, several
months ahead of schedule. "It went well," said David Craig, disaster services
communication technology associate for the Red Cross. "It allowed us to
have connectivity we wouldn't have normally had."
In addition, states and localities, including Arlington County, have
begun exploring options for wireless systems.
"I don't think the counties are necessarily going to wait for standards
to come down," Jordan said. "Folks that were in it felt we weren't prepared.
The local and county governments are probably going to be able to move faster."
Although FEMA's role is still evolving, the desired outcome is clear:
interoperability. "If you're not careful, you have a whole bunch of separate
entities [that aren't] linked," said John Cohen, president and chief executive
officer of Rockville, Md.-based PSComm LLC, which advises state and local
governments on public safety and government operations. "It's an absolute
priority to provide resources to states, counties and localities to make
To do so, FEMA officials have begun managing the creation of a Web portal,
tentatively named DisasterHelp.gov. States and localities will set requirements
for the site, which is one of 24 cross-agency e-government initiatives highlighted
by the Bush administration.
"It's really important to be able to share information because a lot
of the time when you come into an area, the local government may have the
best information," Craig said. "I think everybody did the best job they
could, but interoperability is extremely important, and Sept. 11 pointed
that out in a big way."
FEMA officials are collaborating with their counterparts at the Social
Security Administration, the Small Business Administration and the departments
of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development.
They also will work with representatives from the Red Cross, state and local
chief information officers and emergency managers.
The agency will eventually pull together several systems, simplifying
services and eliminating duplication in the process. Pilot programs and
demonstrations are already under way. In addition, FEMA officials are looking
to the Consequence Management Interoperability Services Web site (www.cmi-services.org)
as a possible model for the FEMA portal. The site is part of the Marine
Corps' efforts to find ways to counter terrorism and provide military support
for domestic preparedness. Although CMI-Services is funded through the Defense
Department, the organization reaches out to first responders nationwide.
"The hard part is trying to figure out how to bring all these pieces
together into one seamless, integrated whole," Miller said.
FEMA officials face the same challenge internally as they seek to develop
an enterprise architecture and consolidate agency servers.
FEMA's National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS), originally
viewed as its IT core, is now considered one of several applications that
will share a common platform. NEMIS, which processes disaster benefits,
will also form part of DisasterHelp.gov.
"The concept of NEMIS as the enterprise IT architecture was misguided,"
Miller said. The budget request includes $26.4 million for the system
a 13 percent increase despite its history of crashing, according to a
federal management review.
Overall, the Bush administration gave FEMA low marks for e-government.
Little oversight has been given to the agency's IT spending, and some funds
have been reallocated to cover other costs, resulting in ineffective and
expensive projects, such as NEMIS, according to administration officials.
And FEMA hasn't adequately justified or documented those projects to Congress
and the Office of Management and Budget.
In addition, state officials are wary that FEMA may have trouble fulfilling
its expanded role and sharing information across jurisdictions. "They've
got to do a much better job of harnessing IT resources," Virginia's Foresman
said. "FEMA does not have a good track record with that."
Acknowledging the agency's past difficulties, Miller is overseeing the
biggest reorganization of FEMA's IT Services Directorate in the division's
seven-year history. "Change was always the plan," he said.
He has centralized all IT resources under his department, and the transformation
and cybersecurity offices are part of the new mix. Before, security personnel
were scattered throughout the agency and did not report to the same person.
"It created quite a few problems," said Thomas Ringer, FEMA's homeland security
coordination officer. "There wasn't a lot of planning on the front end."
Now, all initiatives must go through a review process and earn director-level
"We have the money, we have the talent, we have the people to do security
the right way, but, for whatever reason, we chose not to," Miller said at
AFCEA International's Homeland Security Conference in February.
That's no longer the mind-set. Allbaugh "believes IT is on the cusp
of being the most important aspect of FEMA," Miller said.
"We're beginning to build a total enterprise capability," said Rose
Parkes, FEMA's deputy CIO, speaking this month at the E-Gov Web-Enabled
Government conference in Washington, D.C. "This is something new for our
folks. They are used to working in a stovepipe environment."
A vulnerability analysis revealed that the agency's network has 500
servers or about one entry point for every five employees. Miller described
the effort to consolidate those servers as a work in progress. "Change is
always difficult," he said. "It's obvious we're going to have some folks
who don't get what we're trying to do."
The cultural transformation could become more pronounced if FEMA turns
to seat management. Miller is considering outsourcing the agency's desktop
computers, but awaits a study by Gartner Inc.
Agency officials are also talking with vendors, including Microsoft
Corp., about Web portal technology and information sharing, an area in which
state and local officials are anxious to see FEMA improve.
"They're responsible for coordinating all agencies of government," Foresman
said. "I think they're working on the vision piece of it. All in all, I
think they stand the chance of being successful."
FEMA officials see success as the only option.
"We just have to put our heads down and keep going," Miller said, noting
that the agency's IT services have life-or-death implications. "And I don't
think we have a choice. We have to get it done."