Despite improvements, FEMA's IT still needs work, IG says

DHS IG Report (.pdf)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made progress on upgrading its pre-Hurricane Katrina information technology infrastructure but still faces challenges to long-term improvement, according to the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.

After an audit it performed in September 2005, the IG’s most recent report notes that funding and personnel constraints had forced FEMA to focus on short-term improvements ahead of the 2006 hurricane season.

Consequently, it states, FEMA “has made little progress in addressing long-term needs such as updating strategic plans, defining cross-cutting requirements and evaluating systems alternatives.”

In the most recent audit, the IG focused on attempts to improve the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS) and short- and long-term upgrades meant to align the agency’s IT with its strategic goals more effectively.

FEMA has made strides in increasing NEMIS’ capacity and improving online access to it, the IG said, and it has strengthened the verification of the data that goes into it.

The agency has also made more general improvements through documenting training resources, developing an enterprise architecture plan, setting requirements for new business tools and improving system configuration management, the IG said.

But that’s been at the expense of formulating any strategic direction that will guide long-term IT investment and system development. FENA has also fallen behind on the need to define business needs that could identify any alternatives, including commercially available technologies, which could be used for the complex, custom-built NEMIS, the IG said.

Jeanne Etzel, FEMA’s acting chief information officer, mainly agreed with the IG’s criticisms and with the recommendations for improvements, although she took issue with some of the complaints about NEMIS.

In particular, she said NEMIS’ design and development already incorporate some commercial products and that alternative technologies are automatically assessed through the capital planning process.

She also said FEMA needs a dedicated training environment for people using NEMIS and data center capacity for the servers needed to establish that environment.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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