Officials: Fed tech ready for 2006 hurricane season

With less than a week to go before the 2006 hurricane season starts, federal civilian and military agencies have fixed many of the technology holes they faced last year, senior officials at the Homeland Security and Defense departments and military officials said today.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has fixed most of the information technology deficiencies outlined in Government Accountability Office reports, said David Paulison, FEMA’s acting director.

FEMA hired Deidre Lee, one of the best federal acquisition experts, to help it get the right equipment for this year's hurricane season, Paulison said.

Interoperable communications among federal, state, local and military responders are now robust, said Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “We have spent $800 million in the past nine months to get better at interoperable communications,” he said.

DOD has also integrated high-frequency radio communications so civilian and military responders can talk, said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense.

DHS has mapped out the federal, state and local communications architecture to know what can be affected and how to work around what is knocked out, said George Foresman, DHS’ undersecretary for preparedness.

DHS has placed satellite technology at primary warning points in the Gulf Coast region, Foresman said.

The federal government did not have good situational awareness during Hurricane Katrina, Paulison said.

“We should have had a better handle on the [New Orleans] Superdome,” Paulison said. “We should have had a better handle on the convention center. We should have had a better handle on the levees.”

To remedy that situation this year, FEMA will preposition people with satellite video and voice communications equipment who can communicate directly with FEMA headquarters during and after a storm, Paulison said.

DOD will provide DHS with real-time or near-real-time aerial imagery from surveillance planes and orbital cameras, McHale said.

To improve logistics, FEMA has put sophisticated Global Positioning System technology into all of its transport trucks, Paulison said. The systems show each truck’s position in real time at all times, he said.

“At least we’ll know where they are,” Paulison said. “Last year we didn’t have a clue.”

FEMA is improving how it registers people who need assistance, Paulison said. The agency is now using computer-equipped portable registration and has doubled its teleregistration capacity to more than 200,000 people a day, he said.

FEMA and DHS need to collect data in a way that serves the American people, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said. That includes going out into the field with laptop computers, he said.

FEMA has security protocols in place to protect the personal information of users of its disaster services from identity theft and online fraud, he said.

Chertoff said this a day after the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that the personal information of about 26.5 million veterans – including their names, Social Security numbers, disability ratings and birth dates – was stolen in the past month from the home of a VA employee. The employee took the information home without authorization.

“You can bet no one is going to be taking home a disk,” Chertoff said.

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