DHS announces IT upgrades for FEMA

Amid a whirlwind of controversy surrounding the federal response to 2005 hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the Homeland Security Department has unveiled plans to overhaul the information technology it deploys to cope with disasters.

Under plans announced yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will get improved logistics systems, better customer service systems for disaster victims, modified contracting practices and better communications.

Speaking at the National Emergency Management Association mid-year conference, DHS secretary Michel Chertoff said his department had met a congressional requirement to assess disaster response capabilities nationwide by Feb. 10. He said assessment of the emergency response capabilities of major cities and towns included some green, yellow and red indicators.

"Within the immediate future, we will significantly enhance and strengthen FEMA's disaster registration and processing systems, its Web site and its 1-800 call-in number so that we build the capacity in FEMA to handle up to 200,000 disaster registrations a day. That is our objective," Chertoff said in prepared remarks. "We will also begin the process of upgrading FEMA's outdated information technology and computer systems."

Chertoff announced the measures even as news outlets nationwide featured details of a blistering House Government Reform Committee report on last year's hurricane preparations and response.

DHS issued a statement noting that FEMA is set for a 10 percent budget increase in the fiscal 2007 spending plan the administration sent to Congress earlier this month. FEMA's core budget has increased by 40 percent since 2004, according to the statement.

DHS pledged that the improvements would include:
  • A more sophisticated and specialized logistics management system to better track materiel, inventories, distribution and delivery of supplies to disaster areas

  • Improvements to FEMA's customer service system, now provided chiefly by the agency's National Emergency Management Information System, to help register eligible users, prevent fraud and adjust as the needs of people affected by disasters change during recovery operations

  • Hardened communications systems using interoperable equipment that will help leaders assign priorities to resource requirements.

In addition to the IT improvements, DHS plans to create specialized reconnaissance teams to relay information about disasters to DHS and other agencies.

FEMA also plans to reform complicated contracting and reimbursement methods, according to the statement.

Chertoff noted that DHS often lacked situational awareness because the Homeland Security Operations Center and FEMA's operations center are located in different parts of Washington, and information had to pushed or pulled from one to the other.

"As I said before, I've mandated that we build the hardware and the culture to integrate these operations centers into a single virtual operations center, maybe eventually even a physically integrated operations center, so that we no longer have a seam or a stovepipe within the federal government on the flow of information," Chertoff said.

Wilson P. Dizard III is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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