IG: Inadequate IT hobbled DHS’ 2004 hurricane response

The IG cites an unintegrated IT environment that sometimes required paper-based workarounds devised at the last minute, but FEMA's CIO defends the agency.

Emergency Preparedness and Response Could Better Integrate Information Technology with Incident Resp

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Unlinked and inadequate information technology systems hobbled the Homeland Security Department’s disaster management capabilities a year before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, DHS’ Office of the Inspector General charged yesterday in a scathing report.

“Because of the unintegrated IT environment, during the 2004 hurricanes, [DHS’] systems did not effectively handle increased workloads, were not adaptable to change and lacked needed capabilities,” Richard Skinner, DHS’ IG, said in the report.

Field personnel had to develop ad hoc, often paper-based workarounds to supplement the IT systems, the report found. That led to operational inefficiencies that hurt the delivery of crucial services and supplies.

The report examines DHS’ disaster response activities during the 2004 hurricane season, which had four consecutive storms of Category 3 force or higher: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

The report contains the findings of an audit of the IT that DHS’ Emergency Preparedness and Response (EP&R) Directorate used to support incident management.

EP&R contains the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which members of Congress, state and local response teams, and the public have excoriated for its management of Hurricane Katrina response and recovery efforts.

Barry West, FEMA’s chief information officer, criticized the audit. He said it is full of “obvious inaccuracies” because FEMA could not have done its job without having functional IT capabilities.

“The overall tone of the report is negative…and does not acknowledge the highly performing, well-managed and staffed IT systems supporting FEMA incident response and recovery,” West wrote.

The IG’s office rebutted, “While we state in our report that EP&R was able to get through the 2004 hurricanes, often experiencing significant achievements, high customer satisfaction and high volume processing, we also recognize that FEMA’s accomplishments were not necessarily because of its IT systems, but often in spite of them.”

The audit found that FEMA and EP&R have not yet addressed many longstanding IT deficiencies that predate FEMA’s inclusion in DHS in 2003.

One of the most pressing problems is that FEMA’s IT systems are not integrated and don’t share information with one another, the report found. The replication of data across multiple servers uses up bandwidth and slows and crashes essential systems.

“FEMA’s systems do not support effective or efficient coordination of deployment operations because there is no sharing of information,” the report states.

EP&R’s IT systems also cannot share information with federal, state and local first responders or the National Incident Management System that coordinates them, the report found.

EP&R’s IT systems can’t allocate essential services and commodities or generate useful and timely reports about ongoing operations, the IG’s office found. The systems also cannot track response time to incidents, recovery assistance performance or progress toward departmentwide goals.

FEMA’s IT managers only react to situations and focus on “short-term IT fixes rather than long-term solutions,” the report states. “They often do not authorize or fund IT initiatives until disasters occur and specific systems needs become critical."

FEMA’s IT plan does not reflect its integration into DHS and doesn’t match up with DHS’ overall strategic plan, the report states. Thus, EP&R’s IT spending may not fully support the department’s mission, the report said.

The IG’s office recommended that the undersecretary for EP&R revise FEMA’s overall and IT strategic plans to support DHS’ goals. It suggested that FEMA make sure that all of its IT systems provide necessary performance data.

The office also recommended improving the training EP&R personnel receive in using their IT systems.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said FEMA’s emphasis on short-term acquisitions instead of long-term solutions is a governmentwide problem that his committee will keep monitoring.

Davis also said he will look at how the IT problems enumerated in the report affected the response to Katrina.

NEXT STORY: CSC, Unisys win IT support work

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