Cooper: We need a national IT disaster response plan

ORLANDO, Fla. — Looking back at Hurricane Katrina, Steve Cooper, the Red Cross’ senior vice president and chief information officer, said he realized that such catastrophes require a national information technology response plan. But the federal government should not lead it, he said.

“I will not support putting the responsibility of the plan in the hands of the federal government,” Cooper said last week in his keynote address at the Information Processing Interagency Conference 2006 here.

The Red Cross helped about 4 million people affected by the storm. The Red Cross performed its usual relief services, providing shelter, face-to-face case management and property damage assessments. But this time, it had to link families scattered nationwide.

“This was something beyond our own internal capabilities,” Cooper said. So the Red Cross reached out for more help. The private sector assisted by giving more than $2 billion in aid.

“Why don’t we capitalize on that?” Cooper asked, referring to industry’s assistance. The talent and know-how are there, but “it’s not organized,” he said.

"The federal government – [and] in most cases state and local governments -- will never, ever be able to cover all of the response and recovery initiatives without the support of the private sector," Cooper said.

He did recognize a problem, though: Industry does not profit from helping.

There is money in it, though, said Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales at CDW-G. “Those are, in fact, your customers,” he said. Peterson was on a panel that Cooper moderated discussing a national IT response plan.

Bureaucracy and red tape prevent quick responses to disasters, said panelist Charlie Gephart, CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ South Central VA Health Care Network. But he disagreed on the federal government’s role.

The government is one of the first responders to most disasters, and government employees are true public servants dedicated to helping the country in crisis and should not be left out, Peterson said.

The panelists said agencies and organizations must communicate before and during a crisis. Robert Hanson, CIO for Saratoga County, Fla., and a panelist, said Saratoga and surrounding counties have response plans that involve collaborating to keep communications, such as cell phones and radios, working.

“We have got to keep the politicians out of everything but the policy decisions,” Hanson said.

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