State CIOs skeptical of hurricane readiness

Conference attendees say that communications interoperability problems that plagued disaster responses last year have not been fixed.

On the first day of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, the ability of government at the federal, state and local levels to deal with major disasters is no better than it was when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region last year.

That is the overwhelming consensus of government and private-sector technology experts who convened in Washington, D.C., this week for a conference sponsored by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. CIOs and other top technology leaders from 38 states, Guam, and the District of Columbia are among the 280 conference participants.

Attendees at a session called “Our Next Emergency Is Here – Any Progress on Communications Interoperability?”were asked if they felt that state and local governments are more prepared for major disasters since Hurricane Katrina, which exposed major deficiencies in the country’s emergency-preparedness systems. Almost seven of every 10 attendees who responded to the spot survey, using wireless devices provided by the conference, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement.

When asked to consider the federal government’s level of preparedness to major disasters since Katrina, respondents were more pessimistic. Almost 80 percent of participants in the survey disagreed or strongly disagreed with the suggestion of improved readiness. The survey was conducted June 1, the official start of hurricane season.

The session’s panelists said efforts to create systems that allow seamless communications among emergency organizations and employees are more likely to be thwarted by poor interagency cooperation, such as the inability to agree on common standards and operating procedures, than by technological limitations.

Optimizing interoperability will require more cooperation among regional and statewide interoperability committees; a national management system and integrated standard operating procedures; shared systems with common standards; and regular regional training exercises, said Tony Frater, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, which is part of the Science and Technology Directorate.

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