FEMA prepares for 2006 hurricane season

With less than five months until the 2006 hurricane season starts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already preparing for this year’s season, the agency’s chief information officer said Jan. 25.

“A lot of this won’t get done before June 1,” the first day of the season, CIO Barry West said at a gathering of the Industry Advisory Council/American Council for Technology in Falls Church, Va. “A lot of work has to be done concurrently.”

To prepare for the 2006 hurricane season, FEMA has commissioned studies by Gartner Research and other organizations and is looking at industry best practices, West said. It is also helping bolster DHS’ new Preparedness Directorate, which is assuming FEMA’s preparedness activities.

The agency is implementing a six-part, agencywide retooling effort that includes improving logistics, customer service and personnel, West said.

Improvements for this year also include beefing up the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS), which tracks incident coordination efforts. Officials use the database to manage, for example, disbursements to disaster victims and recovery effort expenses at the federal and state levels.

FEMA intends to eventually upgrade NEMIS to handle three or four catastrophes at a time, West said. The agency could have the next-generation system in place for the 2007 hurricane season, he said.

Even though the system suffers from widespread data duplication, “NEMIS met the challenge presented by the [fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2005] hurricane seasons,” West told the crowd.

DHS’ inspector general has been less charitable, saying in November 2005 that NEMIS lacks sufficient continuity of operations plans and protections for sensitive data.

Interoperability is one of the main challenges FEMA faces in 2006, West said. “We’ve got to somehow develop a plan and move the data along,” he said. If not, the agency will encounter communications breakdowns like those faced after Hurricane Katrina, he added.

One optimistic trend for FEMA this year is that it has made significant progress in certifying and accrediting its computer systems to comply with the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002, West said.

So far, FEMA has reached about 50 percent of its goals for 2006, West said. “We’re pretty much on target to get all of our systems certified and accredited by September,” he said.

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