FEMA Incorporates Smartphones for Continuity of Operations

SPECIAL REPORT: Smartphones & PDAs

By Barbara DePompa, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media

FEMA’s recent investment in mobile devices, smartphones and wireless laptop cards via a contract awarded to AT&T in January will help the agency consolidate mobile communications, along with billing and mobile device administration, and is considered a big step forward in implementing greater mobility for FEMA personnel.


Following the contract award to AT&T Global Solutions, which included the delivery of 22,000 devices by April 1, the goal now is to make sure FEMA is happy and comfortable using the new devices, said Joe O’Bryan, executive director of DHS, DoJ and intelligence community operations for AT&T Government Solutions.


AT&T Government Solutions is widely recognized for network leadership in voice, data, video and managed services, already providing an array of voice and data services to the Department of Homeland Security and several of its agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration and several others.


In coordinating the federal government’s role in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), within the Department of Homeland Security, awarded AT&T a contract in January to provide voice and data devices for the nationwide FEMA workforce. As the primary wireless provider to FEMA, AT&T has already delivered 22,000 secure, wireless data and voice communications units, which are being used to run a wide assortment of e-mail, voice and data applications in the field.  The units delivered consist of AT&T’s LaptopConnectwireless cards and BlackBerry 8820 smartphones, as well as the 3G LG CU405 units, which provide FEMA employees with Push To Talk.


FEMA can now procure additional wireless applications from AT&T Government Solutions based on the needs of the agency. O’Bryan pointed out in an interview that there are a variety of mobile applications that would be of enormous benefit to FEMA’s mission. Among the most noteworthy, are the following:

*Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which can be used to track personnel and assets. GPS capability can be used to perform virtual fencing, so that when a person or device leaves a specified geographic area, a FEMA administrator is alerted. There are also safety situations that make GPS a valuable tool. When FEMA personnel must go into emergency situations, they can press a single button to let others know when they’ve entered the risky area, hit the same button twice if the situation is deemed very risky. If they hit the button three times in succession, additional responders will be alerted to immediately respond to the rescue alert.
*In areas where English isn’t a first language, another useful application would bring up services to aid in translating simple phrases, or by placing the phone on speaker mode, the operator could work with a third-party translator to conduct interviews with people in the aftermath of emergencies, for example.
*Field examiners, among the first to respond to a disaster would also benefit greatly from the ability to fill out forms and send materials back to headquarters to speed the assessment of damages, as well as the surrounding area’s immediate requirements for FEMA support.


Most importantly, O’Bryan explained, FEMA has decided to work closely in partnership with AT&T to deploy the new cell phones, PDAs and laptop wireless cards. “In any disaster situation, AT&T clearly could also be impacted, which is why FEMA wants to ensure communications will function, even if AT&T’s networks are somehow impacted in a disaster scenario,” he said.


Because communication is considered crucial to FEMA’s mission, and intertwined with AT&T’s primary focus as well, both organizations will work to plan and conduct field exercises to deploy recovery services together, later this summer, O’Bryan said. “Rather than being called upon to deliver communications services only after disaster strikes, the ability to test disaster scenarios with FEMA will likely improve AT&T’s ability to respond and meet the agency’s needs in emergencies,” he explained.


At RFK Stadium in July, AT&T will host an event to test recovery operations and is planning to work in partnership with FEMA on this event as well. AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery team has held up to four full-scale disaster recovery exercises every year since 1993. The exercises test as many of AT&T’s NDR processes as possible, from the initial call out, to equipment transportation and setup, to technology turn-up and testing. At these exercises, team members are given hands-on training on new technologies and how recovery equipment functions in field conditions. The drills are held throughout the United States in a wide variety of weather and settings.


Benefits of Centralization
While a sizeable investment, the concept of centralized purchasing vehicles can save agencies money compared to letting field offices buy their own cell phones and wireless data plans, as needed. Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, Inc., Jenkintown, Pa., expects a growing number of federal agencies to jump on the centralized purchasing bandwagon for handheld devices to gain greater cost and efficiency benefits in the coming months.


The federal government is trying to incorporate a growing number of mobile devices in new areas, such as in census-taking for the 2010 Census, to wirelessly send data back into the database in realtime. Also, these devices are being used for field inspections with the Department of Agriculture,” Suss said. “These kinds of wireless technologies can help agencies perform their missions
more effectively.”

Equally important to gaining optimal productivity benefits, according to AT&T’s O’Bryan, is to move FEMA employees from regular cell phones to smartphones or other handheld devices. Because DHS currently has a policy against cameras, for example, the FEMA BlackBerry devices lack this important tool, which logically would provide useful support in the aftermath of an emergency. A camera could be used to record evidence of a disaster and provide greater detail on the range and level of destruction, for example. “Because so much of the country is now covered in 3G network areas, FEMA personnel could video disasters and conduct concalls to describe situations and what’s required for recovery,” O’Bryan explained.


LaptopConnect and the BlackBerry 8820 smartphone devices provide FEMA employees with wireless connectivity for their laptop computers and BlackBerry smartphones to the AT&T Wi-Fi network, the nation’s largest Wi-Fi network with more than 17,000 AT&T Hot Spots. The BlackBerry 8820 is powered by AT&T’s nationwide EDGE network, with availability in more than 13,000 locations, along some 40,000 miles of major highways. The BlackBerry 8820 Series device features a QWERTY keyboard, the thin BlackBerry design, user-friendly trackball navigation system, voice and data functionality, built-in GPS and an expandable memory slot. The BlackBerry 8820 is dual-mode, combining EDGE/GPRS/GSM cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity for flexible data access.


AT&T officials said the proven reliability, bandwidth and speed of the network, allows AT&T Government Solutions to help FEMA employees access the information they need “for real-time decision making in the field, while ensuring they can collect, access and transmit this information in a secure environment at all times, regardless of location.