FEMA takes PCs to the field to speed disaster-data gathering

MT. WEATHER, Va.--A Federal Emergency Management Agency official hunkers over his PC
screen as tornadoes rip across Arkansas.


But the twisters aren't real. The simulated storm is part of FEMA's month-long test of
a new system to improve the agency's response to disasters.


FEMA, the agency that determines infrastructure damage and the needs of survivors after
disasters, is measuring the system's performance against recent natural calamities such as
earthquakes, flash fires, flooding rivers and powerful hurricanes.


FEMA wants to begin deploying the National Emergency Management Information System this
spring. The $70 million NEMIS will replace the clipboards and paper forms that FEMA field
workers use to gather information on damage and survivor needs.


The system will include handheld computers for field workers and will replace the paper
trail with servers and databases to speed relief checks to people in affected areas.


FEMA plans to host NEMIS on 74 Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant 5000 servers with 3G of
RAM each. NEMIS will support 5,400 users and 1,600 simultaneous connections. It includes
an interface for FEMA damage estimators at remote disaster sites and FEMA claim processors
and administrators in federal offices.


After the president declares a stricken region a federal disaster area, FEMA swings
into action. Inspectors go into the field to determine the level of damage to such
structures as homes, businesses, water towers, power plants, roads and bridges. If the
damage meets certain criteria, the government pays for some repair and reconstruction.


But large disasters such as the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake proved that a
paper-dependent disaster recovery management system is too sluggish, a FEMA official said.


"We had so much paper we had to store many of the case records for the 750,000
applicants in a warehouse," said Clay Hollister, FEMA associate director of the
Information Technology Services Directorate. "When an applicant would call to ask
about their case, we literally had to send someone running out to the warehouse to find
it. It was grossly inefficient."


So FEMA began a five-year program to automate the process. The agency already had a
good communications backbone, which made the upgrade project easier, said Bill Prusch,
director of FEMA's Program Management Group.


"We have a 100Base-T LAN that connects the FEMA WANs," Prusch said.
"Remote access is via dedicated T1s and dial-up nodes."


Besides hastening the delivery of money to stricken areas, NEMIS would let agency
officials track similar disasters and rate the agency's response performance. Information
about each disaster would be loaded in an Oracle Corp. Oracle Version 8 database running
under Microsoft Windows NT.


The database will let FEMA update files every 15 minutes so field workers have access
to current information, FEMA officials said.


To model workflow, FEMA is using Mosaix Inc.'s ViewStar software running under NT. The
Alameda, Calif., company's software defines workflow and rules for document management,
something FEMA needs for an effective NEMIS, FEMA officials said.


Dennis DeWalt, FEMA's deputy associate director for IT services, said the agency has
been buying PCs that match or exceed the minimum requirements for NEMIS. All PCs will be
in place when NEMIS comes online, he said.


To access NEMIS, users need a PC with a minimum 166-MHz processor, 32M of RAM, a 1G
hard drive and Windows 95. FEMA is using Microsoft Office 97 for tasks such as managing
e-mail and running printers.


FEMA employees and state volunteers gave the system high praise during the test earlier
this month. DeWalt said users experimented with the system as it was being developed and
their suggestions were incorporated into the final version.


"That process added 10 months to our development time," DeWalt said.
"But in the end, we will have a final product that we know will work for the future.
It's much better to do it this way than to field a system people don't like, or one that
becomes inadequate as soon as you turn it on."


At the disaster exercise last month, FEMA set up three virtual field offices, a
processing center and headquarters to handle three virtual disasters based on actual
events.


In a room at one end of the Virginia training facility, operators took claim
information from residents in affected areas, typing the information directly into NEMIS
applications for review. NEMIS prompts the user and in 80 percent of the cases lets a
field worker know if a person qualifies for federal relief.


The system stores the rejected claims in case the government later changes its
evaluation criteria for a specific disaster. If that happens, NEMIS reinstates claims so
disaster victims don't have to reapply.


In another room, inspectors used handheld computers to enter descriptions of damaged
houses and upload their files to the servers. NEMIS calculated damage estimates for the
inspectors.


FEMA also is developing an interface from NEMIS to its financial system so it will
automatically cut a check for a disaster victim following an inspection. Now, FEMA
typically mails such checks within 11 days. But FEMA officials said the new system likely
will cut the time down to as fast as four hours after an inspection.


Scott Martin, chief of FEMA's National Processing Center, said the new system will
create an audit trail. At the click of a button, NEMIS can produce reports that detail who
received federal money, how much they received and how the money is to be spent.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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