Florida Firm Speeds Disaster Recovery With Field Device

By Nick Wakeman

Staff Writer

Whether it's flood waters in North Dakota, earthquakes in California or hurricanes in Florida, natural disasters eventually come to an end. Then families face the daunting task of rebuilding, and a Florida 8(a) company has the opportunity to once again prove that its product works.

Since the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994, inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have gone into the field armed with a pen-based, hand-held computer rather than sheaths of paper inspection reports.

Using software and integration services developed by UCS, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the FEMA inspectors were able to electronically record damage to homes and later upload that data to FEMA processing centers.

Homeowners get their checks more quickly, and FEMA saves money. The initial system cost about $8.5 million including hardware, said Scott Martin, chief of the national processing service center branch for FEMA.

It is not uncommon for FEMA to receive 400 or 500 applications for financial assistance a day, four months after a disaster the size of the recent flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota, according to Scott Martin of FEMA.

But in that first disaster in Northridge, FEMA saved $25 million in processing costs, he said. At the peak of the recovery operations at Northridge, FEMA was fielding 22,000 damage claims a day, he said.

For UCS, the FEMA project was one opportunity to enter the federal market. Founded in 1985, the 130-person company has mostly worked with local police and rescue squad departments to develop hand-held devices to record incident reports, said Nancy Hucke, general manager of the company.

Police applications remain the $9 million-a-year company's bread and butter, but since the FEMA project, UCS has developed an application for Internal Revenue Service inspectors who conduct background checks on prospective employees, Hucke said.

The company has also sold devices to Bureau of Indian Affairs police departments and has other projects in the works, she said.

The company's goal is to have one-third of its revenues come from the federal government as it pursues 20 percent a year in growth, Hucke said.

Winning the FEMA project was almost a case of serendipity, to hear Hucke describe it. UCS was looking for a federal agency that did a lot of field work, and FEMA was looking for a way to address complaints that it was too slow in processing claims. The meeting of the two was a perfect match, she said.

"FEMA has really been a pioneer in the use of this technology on the federal side," Hucke said. "They had the vision."

Although Martin sings the system's praises, it was not easy when the project started in 1992, he said. "We didn't understand our requirements as well as we thought we did," he said. "We didn't think through some of the things we needed."

Some of those items included how to process reinspections and appeals of damage estimates, he said.

The system kicks in when a homeowner calls one of FEMA's automated teleregistration centers to apply for disaster relief. Operators key in data such as address, contact phone numbers and insurance information, Martin explained. UCS developed and integrated the centers' software with the hand-held units. The information is then transmitted via CompuServe to the FEMA inspectors in the field, who at the end of the day transmit the data they have collected back to data centers.

FEMA reaped its savings by doing away with a paper system where information has to be entered by hand at each stage. Information management costs of a disaster have been cut by up to 50 percent, mostly because fewer data-entry people are needed, Martin said.

Training costs also are lower because there are fewer people to train. Fewer people also means getting up to speed on a disaster is faster, he said. The system never completely shuts down.

"We are never between disasters," he said. The application period for FEMA relief is open for 60 days after a disaster, and then there are appeals and reinspections. It is not uncommon for FEMA to be receiving 400 or 500 applications a day four months after a disaster the size of the recent flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota, he said.

There also are a lot of smaller disasters that never make headlines in the major newspapers or 11 o'clock news. "At any particular time, we might be working on 20 or 30 different situations," Martin said.

With so much use, UCS' system is continuing to evolve. FEMA is considering adding geographic information system capabilities to help inspectors find the homes they are scheduled to evaluate, Martin said. E-mail is another feature the agency would like to add.

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