FEMA assesses its IT strengths

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will have a new information system for tracking the movement of ice, water and other supplies into storm-damaged regions in time for the next hurricane season, which begins June 1. But other communications and information processing systems that the agency needs will not be in place because of funding problems and insufficient time to review new systems, said Barry West, FEMA’s chief information officer.

Speaking April 11 at a meeting of the National Capitol Chapter of AIIM in Arlington, Va., West said a lack of interoperable communications among local, state and federal officials remains one of the biggest challenges for FEMA in responding to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast last August. That problem probably won’t be solved unless Congress steps in, West said. “It’s going to take some legislation to mandate some standards.”

By June 1, however, DHS officials expect to have tractor-trailers outfitted with Global Positioning System devices in at least two hurricane-prone regions. Field employees are receiving training to use the GPS systems. “We have to have real-time visibility,” West said, as opposed to the alternative, which is a phone call.

To prepare for the hurricane season, FEMA will conduct exercises in the most hurricane-prone parts of the country in the next four to six weeks.

New leadership appointments are another positive development at FEMA, West said. He cited the recent hiring of David Paulison as FEMA’s new director and Deidre Lee as deputy director of operations, among others. Lee will oversee all FEMA’s procurement and acquisition activities, which need better oversight, West said.

FEMA’s use of the Homeland Security Department’s enterprise architecture standards has helped the agency make cost-effective IT investments, West said. “That’s how I look at [enterprise architecture] — as a money-saver.” But responding to Katrina and other problems has diverted some resources away from enterprise architecture. “I’m finding [enterprise architecture] does not get kept up as it should be, and that continues to be a challenge,” he said.

The agency has upgraded one of its major systems — the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS) — by converting its database from Oracle 9i to Oracle 10g. But West said FEMA’s longer-range plan is to redesign NEMIS by introducing Web services to replace its client-server architecture. Oracle replication takes too long, he said. Nevertheless, during the 2005 hurricane season, NEMIS handled five times the number of daily transactions for which it was designed. As the primary system used to process hurricane relief checks, NEMIS performed as many as 107,000 transactions daily, West said.

FEMA plans to solicit competitive bids for NEMIS next year. The agency most likely would award a managed services contract to handle similar surges in processing requests for disaster relief payments, West said. “We’re looking at a model that would have a lot of managed services.”

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