FEMA, NIST collaborate

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two agencies have strengthened their collaborative ties in hopes of improving disaster response and enhancing homeland security.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology signed a memorandum of understanding March 29 that designates NIST as a research and technical resource for FEMA.

"Both agencies recognize that our missions in fire, natural disaster prevention and man-made disaster events are highly complementary, and that based on our history of successful collaborations following disasters, it is in the public interest to continue to draw on this relationship," NIST Director Arden Bement Jr. and FEMA's Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration Director Robert Shea said in a joint statement.

NIST has provided FEMA with technical assistance since the mid-1970s, said Shyam Sunder, chief of the structures division in the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at NIST.

In November 1997, NIST signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fire Administration, which is a part of FEMA. "That has worked very well, and we wanted to expand that relationship to include all the capabilities," Sunder said.

FEMA and NIST officials had been discussing the expanded memorandum for more than a year. "Over time, both agencies have recognized we need more formal mechanisms to carry out our joint work," he said.

A March 6 hearing of the House Science Committee on the collapse of the World Trade Center towers gave them further momentum, according to Shea.

"As we went through the response for Sept. 11, it became more clear that this was urgently needed, and we moved faster to get it," Sunder said.

The new pact aims to have the agencies working together to:

n Reduce loss of life and property and protect the nation's buildings and infrastructure from all types of hazards.

n Aid the development of technology and methods to evaluate equipment for use by first responders.

n Ensure FEMA can quickly call on NIST for assistance with scientific and technological services in disaster investigations, recovery planning and support technologies.

The coordination of equipment for first responders is crucial, said Randall Larsen, director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security. "Somebody needs to be setting national standards because there are all sorts of companies trying to sell stuff," Larsen said.

Details of the understanding are still being worked out, however. "It's not all that clear at this moment," Shea said.

Information technology will factor into the mix. "There are implications [for IT], but most are probably down the road," he said.

***

A new pact

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have agreed:

* To implement a coordinated annual process to plan, prioritize, select and fund projects of mutual interest.

* To establish a protocol for activating a quick deployment mechanism when both agencies determine a need for a NIST response in extreme events.

* That projects may involve the participation of other agencies, industries and university experts.

* That the leaders of NIST and FEMA's Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, or their designees, will meet twice a year to review progress and provide policy direction in implementing the understanding.

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