DHS to bolster FEMA IT

FEMA to field new disaster tech

Problem: Disaster relief supplies have not been flowing to catastrophe victims in proper quantities, or at the right places or times.

Technology fix: FEMA plans to build a logistics management system to track shipments of disaster relief supplies, manage inventories, and improve distribution and delivery. The system will use radio frequency identification devices to track shipments in real time.

Problem: FEMA's outdated IT backbone, the National Emergency Management Information System, needs upgrades to handle increasing demand, block fraud and adjust to changing needs of disaster populations following catastrophes.

Technology fix: FEMA plans to issue a request for proposals for the next generation of NEMIS, which CIO Barry West recently said is in the planning stages. It will adjust to the increase in online disaster relief registrations, which have grown from about 15 percent in 2004 to 48 percent in 2005. FEMA seeks to increase NEMIS' capacity to 200,000 registrations daily.

Problem: FEMA needs upgraded technology to help gather, search and track data about specific cases.

Technology fix: The agency plans to increase its use of Web services technology and migrate away from client server systems.

Problem: Disaster victims need access to broadband communications to register for benefits, contact relatives, and communicate with private insurers and other companies.

Technology fix: FEMA has bought 60 Mobile Disaster Recovery Centers mounted in vans that work partly via satellite links. The agency also plans to buy 30 more of the communications vans.

Problem: Catastrophes destroy communications systems. The command and control tangle hinders disaster response and recovery.

Technology fix: Chertoff has called for hardened, interoperable communications gear to help responders assign priorities to resource needs and improve decision-making. West is working with the Pentagon and other agencies to develop an overall plan for interoperable communications that would include both voice and data services. 'Wilson P. Dizard III

Chertoff, under pressure, refocuses agency on disaster response

Homeland security Department secretary Michael Chertoff last week had to turn away, at least temporarily, from his preferred focus on deploying border technology to improving disaster management IT, amid continued public outrage over the response to last year's hurricanes.

Chertoff's shift in policy emphasis did not apparently entail changes to the administration's overall budget request for the widely derided Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Instead, the announcement of FEMA upgrades including use of IT for disaster management, logistics and telecommunications, came against the background of Congressional testimony, Government Accountability Office analysis and a DHS inspector general report describing pervasive waste, fraud and abuse in the hurricane response.

The FEMA technology upgrades will draw on the administration's proposal to increase the department's overall budget by 6 percent to $42.7 billion in fiscal 2007.

Chertoff detailed technology improvement plans in a speech to the National Emergency Management Association last week. FEMA is set for a 10 percent budget increase in the 2007 spending plan. FEMA's core budget has increased by 40 percent since 2004, the department said. DHS' IT budget would increase next year by $772 million'the most of any agency'to $5.4 billion.

Before the negative Katrina reports, Chertoff had called the 2007 spending plan 'a strong budget for the Homeland Security Department.'

He emphasized in his budget presentation and in a separate briefing the importance of securing the borders and improving immigration law enforcement.

And despite the new emphasis on disaster relief, border programs are still due for a boost.

The Secure Border Initiative, a collection of technology, personnel and infrastructure programs, is set to receive a major funding boost, to $541 million next year.

For example, DHS plans to increase by $135 million spending for the Employment Verification pilot program, a database to help employers check worker eligibility.

The administration has allocated $100 million to SBI.net, a project to further upgrade technology among ports of entry.

Chertoff emphasized that controlling illegal entry takes many forms, including better screening of visa applicants as well as improved intelligence about risks.

The budget includes an additional $60 million for improvements to databases used by the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system.

The new U.S. Visit funds will help pay for the coordination of information exchange between the department's IDENT database, which uses two-fingerprint data, and the FBI's 10-fingerprint Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. DHS now is seeking technology for small, portable terminals it can use to gather 10-fingerprint data at border crossings.

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