FEMA puts disaster info into hands of smart-phone users

Mobile Web site lets people access emegency info via smart phone

Imagine this scenario: A sunny afternoon suddenly turns dark, the sky goes black and is streaked with lightning, and the wind is roaring. In the distance, you see a funnel cloud.

It’s a tornado. You don’t have access to a desktop PC or radio. What do you do? Where do you go? Where do you get assistance? How can you help others?

If you’ve got a smart phone — and many people do these days — you can quickly log on to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new mobile Web site, m.fema.gov, a guide to emergency preparedness and response, and get answers.

“Smart phones are becoming more prevalent, affordable, reliable and more viable to locate and obtain information and assistance,” said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. “The service will provide yet another avenue for the sharing of important information that is so critical to ensuring the public is prepared for emergencies.”

Mobile devices have increasingly become a lifeline for providing information to survivors and emergency personnel after a disaster, Fugate said. For example, after the earthquake in Haiti, the relief effort was supported by the country’s mobile phone network, which quickly recovered after the disaster.

FEMA’s mobile Web site was launched last month and is laid out in a user-friendly question-and-answer format. It will work on any mobile device with a Web browser.

The site tells users what to do in the event of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornadoes, tsunamis, wildfires and winter storms and provides information on how to return home safely.

The site also instructs users on how to apply for federal assistance after an emergency. In June, when the next generation of the mobile platform is available — just in time for the start of the 2010 hurricane season — users will be able to apply for assistance via their smart phones.

FEMA officials said a project team has customized the site's pages so people can more easily access them with the most common smart phones. However, in some cases, links might point to external sites that are not managed by FEMA, which could limit availability to some users.

The application is hosted at two FEMA data centers — one primary and one backup — and eventually will migrate to one of the Homeland Security Department’s data centers. It integrates a front-end questionnaire hosted by the Labor Department, adapting Labor's GovBenefits.gov format, and FEMA’s back-end National Emergency Management Information System, officials said.

FEMA officials are planning technical improvements to the site, including interfaces with other federal, state and local agencies and private nonprofit organizations, such as the Coordinated Assistance Network; integrating additional controls for waste, fraud and abuse during emergencies; and surge capability through a federal cloud solution.

For the site, FEMA's project team built the agency’s first service-oriented architecture and is using that for other agency connections and systems, officials said. Apptis serves in the project manager role and technical integration team on a BAE Systems (Prime) Project Management Office Team. From the BAE Team, Apptis and EyeStreet managed the buildout of the site and the SOA.

Officials said the site supplements the agency’s www.ready.gov Web site.

About the Author

Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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