Chertoff outlines plans to strengthen FEMA

Post-Katrina improvements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency will aim to fix shortcomings in four critical areas: logistics systems, communications, business processes and procurement, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in testimony to Congress this week.

Testifying before the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina, Chertoff outlined plans to boost the capabilities at FEMA in the short term in four specific areas. Those enhancements will require IT as well as personnel, Chertoff said, but he did not provide budget figures.

In its response to Katrina, FEMA's logistics systems proved to be inadequate, according to Chertoff. Those are the IT systems that manage the acquisition, storage and delivery of emergency food, water, medical and other supplies and personnel to disaster-affected areas. Many parts of the logistics system are "antiquated and inefficient," he said.

FEMA will emulate major "just-in-time" inventory distribution and delivery systems that allow for quick assessments of inventory, delivery of materials, and replenishing of stocks, Chertoff added.

Regarding communications, FEMA must have its own increased communications capability so that it can function even when telecommunications infrastructure in a region has failed due to a catastrophic storm, Chertoff said. Satellite phones are "helpful, [but] they are not a panacea," he said. DHS is looking at military and advanced private-sector communications technology that could be adapted for emergency use.

Another facet of communications is being able to receive information and situational awareness about events on site, Chertoff said. "In any disaster, situational awareness requires real time access to accurate, first-hand information," he said. This was severely hampered following Katrina because of the flooding that made large areas inaccessible and the power outages that made communication difficult or impossible, he said.

To address that problem, DHS is establishing emergency reconnaissance teams composed of FEMA, Coast Guard, customs and other personnel to go into a disaster area to assess events on the ground, Chertoff said. The teams are being paid for within current budgets, he added.

FEMA's business processes for providing disaster assistance?including answering phones, registering evacuees and providing benefits?also need to be more effective, Chertoff said. Under FEMA's traditional model, people typically come to a fixed location to register for aid, but that model does not work when the catastrophe covers a large geographic area, he said. Chertoff suggested creating "surge" assistance teams that could be dispatched quickly to expand capacity in a particular area.

In addition, FEMA needs to have "mature, solid contracting and procurement system in place" and must focus on procurement integrity, Chertoff said.

"With Katrina, [FEMA's] capabilities were pushed beyond the breaking point," according to Chertoff. "In Katrina, FEMA faced challenges in having full situational awareness of where the needs were greatest, getting supplies into affected areas, and tracking shipments of supplies to ensure that they reached the people who need them."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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