FEMA falls short on warning systems, GAO says

Meanwhile, a FEMA official defends IPAWS and EAS

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made little progress in improving either of its largely information technology-based national public warning systems for disasters in the last two years, a senior official of the Government Accountability Office has told a House panel.

However, a senior FEMA official disputed those assessments and said several improvements are scheduled for completion in 2012 .

The nation’s primary emergency alert system (EAS) was set up in the 1960s to carry warnings of pending attacks, major disasters and other incidents, primarily over radio and television.

However, FEMA has done little to correct the system’s longstanding weaknesses and as a result, “EAS does not fulfill the need for a reliable, comprehensive alert system,” Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure for GAO, told the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee Sept. 30.

FEMA’s next-generation disaster alert system, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) also got a poor review from Goldstein. FEMA began developing IPAWS in 2004 to expand coverage to cell phones, computers, cable television, e-mail and other devices and networks. It was supposed to integrate new and existing capabilities, including the EAS, into a “system of systems.”

However, IPAWS remains stuck, Goldstein said, adding, “National-level alert capabilities have remained unchanged and new technologies have not been adopted. IPAWS efforts have been affected by shifting program goals, lack of continuity in planning, staff turnover and poorly organized program information from which to make management decisions. The vision of IPAWS has changed twice over the course of the program, and strategic goals and milestones are not clearly defined.”

Meanwhile, Damon Penn, assistant administrator for FEMA’s National Continuity Programs Directorate, agreed with some of the criticisms of the EAS and IPAWS, but disagreed with GAO’s overall negative assessments. “While we are making great strides in achieving our vision, our progress is not without challenges,” Penn said.

He said IPAWS will have interoperable standards in place, redundancy capabilities and multiple paths for the same message in place by 2012. FEMA has been developing an IPAWs messaging architecture compatible with the Common Alerting Protocol Standard from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. FEMA also is doing testing, demonstration, training and geo-targeting of messages, Penn said and is developing a strategic plan.

But Goldstein noted that IPAWS operated without a strategic plan in place from early 2007 to June 2009, causing some state and local governments to work on alternative systems.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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