FEMA plays catch-up on IT infrastructure

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to upgrade its technology infrastructure and business processes to better fulfill its mission.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s information technology infrastructure and business processes are a decade behind those of the rest of the federal government, according to a FEMA official. Critical functions such as information sharing and data systems are disparate and do not provide the level of collaboration the agency needs, said Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson, deputy FEMA administrator and chief operating officer. “We are trying to catch up,” he said after his keynote speech at the 46th annual Interagency Resource Management Conference. “Our No. 1 area for investment in our 2009 budget will be in IT. It slows us down in everything we do right now.” Johnson said FEMA will not just upgrade its technology infrastructure but will change its business processes first. The agency hired contractors to perform 90-day audits of 17 business areas, including IT, procurement, human resources and financial management, and report back any and all challenges or problems. “We found out we had no business processes, no metrics and no accountability,” Johnson said. Johnson said that although the audits didn’t tell them anything new, they provided documentation to bring to program managers and executives to begin solving the problems. “We are about three months into the post-audit work,” he said. “In some areas, we just need to change the organizational structure or update policies and procedures, but others it is about investment, especially in IT.” One area Johnson said needs immediate help is FEMA’s human resources system. Currently, it is mostly manual, he said. By this summer, FEMA will continue the Homeland Security Department’s move to a common agencywide HR system under the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center, said an administration official with knowledge of HR systems. FEMA also created an investment review board, improved the federal coordinating office for disasters and developed metrics for states and regions to determine how they respond to disasters. “We sent out single metrics to 11 states and Puerto Rico before hurricane season starts” June 1, Johnson said. “We will use prescripted mission assignments and existing contracts that we can place task orders against.” FEMA also set up a Gulf Coast regional coordination group to prepare for large evacuations and other issues related to disasters. “Our work is trying to show the value of good leadership,” Johnson said. “FEMA deserves good leadership and now we have it.”

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