FEMA seeks cooperation on disaster portal

Goal is not just a Web site that lists helpful programs but also changes to the way government delivers assistance to victims

Administrative obstacles are the most daunting hurdles for the developers of disasterhelp.gov, a government portal for coping with natural and human calamities.

“The most challenging thing is going to be, No. 1, the discovery process,” said Ron Miller, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His agency is identifying what the portal’s customers need and what federal programs should participate in the portal.

“Some agencies have been very forthcoming with what they are doing in this arena and very cooperative in this area,” Miller said. “There are other programs of which we are aware, but we haven’t had those agencies become active participants yet.”

Miller says he won’t be satisfied with simply slapping a Web front end on a collection of existing programs to prevent, prepare for and mitigate disasters. Instead, the project demands that the FEMA team revisit the many ways the government delivers disaster assistance. “We need to take those programs and do a lot of analysis and re-engineering to make it more of a unified process,” Miller said.

For example, programs administered by FEMA, the Small Business Administration and other agencies all require personal information from applicants.

Miller said he wants to develop a system through which applicants would enter their personal information one time in one format. After that single data collection, “that set of personal information can be used for any disaster program, regardless of where it resides,” he said.

New server approach

Meanwhile, FEMA is overhauling its main disaster assistance system, the National Emergency Management Information System, which will form a part of the new portal. NEMIS has come under criticism for being prone to crashing, but Miller said the portal project will reduce that problem.

In a NEMIS upgrade, FEMA plans to eliminate the system’s multiple servers across the country and consolidate the data in a single Oracle Corp. database. Now, it must replicate data from a main server on subsystems nationwide.

“That replication process in the past has been one of the things that has caused problems with NEMIS as the demand on its services increased,” Miller said.

Miller said that under the new approach, FEMA would rely on the Oracle database, which the agency has established as its enterprise standard. “We’ll probably look to eventually bringing it to have a primary database server, a consolidated server, and then a backup,” Miller said. “No more replication.”

As part of the NEMIS upgrade, FEMA systems specialists are tuning the Structured Query Language scripts that support NEMIS transactions.

Because one of NEMIS’ functions supports the distribution of benefits to disaster victims, FEMA plans to incorporate transactional services in disasterhelp.gov. To secure transactions, the agency will use the E-Authentication service being developed by the General Services Administration.

“We recognize that if we can’t secure personal information and ensure privacy then people are not going to have confidence in using the capability, and then we have failed in our purpose of improving service,” Miller said.

Building the portal will cost FEMA between $10 million and $17 million, Miller said, and require budget approval from Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

FEMA will work within the 24-month time line OMB has assigned to its 24 e-government projects, but Miller said he isn’t sure that finishing the project by the deadline is possible.

“My objective is to keep my foot on the accelerator and do as much as we can in that 24-month time frame,” he said. The agency already has developed some prototypes for how disasterhelp.gov will look.

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