This help desk rescues FEMA

"Information systems are expected to work all the time," said Clay Hollister,
FEMA's chief information officer. "When they fail, because we all depend on them, we
have a crisis. Some crises are bigger than others, but for the customer, the fix can never
be too fast."


Trouble calls come from users who installed unauthorized software but want immediate
support, officials under congressional pressure to produce last-minute reports, and
travelers who need to download e-mail remotely in hotel rooms, Paul L. Alberti said. He is
a computer specialist at FEMA's Information Technology Services unit. ITS manages the
independent agency's central help desk.


"We're stuck in the middle," serving the needs of a diverse group of users,
Alberti said. That includes people who prefer manual work processes and those who resist
changing the technology status quo.


Lack of end-user training is the main issue, said Thomas R. Ringer, chief of FEMA's
headquarters Operations Branch. About 1,000 FEMA employees and contractors work at
Washington headquarters, and others are at three remote locations in Maryland, he said.


When FEMA officials in 1994 created ITS to manage support centrally, there were
"extreme growing pains" in software standardization and training, Ringer said.


ITS' staff of 15 civil servants and contract employees provides the desktop PC and
server support. Other personnel support the audiovisual equipment, network backbone and
telephone system.


After a rocky start, ITS formed an advisory board of representatives from each of
FEMA's directorates. The board has helped ITS better meet the needs of FEMA personnel and
build more realistic expectations of its performance.


As ITS tries to improve its performance and relationships within FEMA, it must fight
employee burnout and low morale.


"We rotate people around to laptop installations, service calls, phone operations
and special operations, so they're not always doing the same job every day," Ringer
said.


The staff completed a PC upgrade to Microsoft Windows 95 and Office 97 last spring,
keeping Lotus Development Corp.'s cc:Mail for e-mail. They had to go visit each PC at
headquarters and took a beating, Alberti said, because many of the users were unable to
migrate on their own to the office suite from older applications such as Borland
International Inc. dBase, Lotus 1-2-3 and Corel Corp. WordPerfect.


September was the busiest month since June, Alberti said. Help desk software from
Applix Inc. of Westborough, Mass., showed that 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. are the busiest hours.
ITS personnel can perform trend analyses with Applix to see how to work more effectively,
Wendy Drucker, a computer specialist, said.


Most users report problems by telephone, Alberti said, but some send e-mail. Officials
are considering an automated, distributed process to turn e-mail requests into help desk
trouble tickets, he said.


ITS has ruled out having users report problems over an intranet, he said, because many
users cannot accurately describe problems.


Help desk personnel must be trained to ask the right questions and how to use the
databases of solutions to common problems, Drucker said.


The organization has begun working more closely with FEMA's acquisition management
personnel and has designated a test server for new software. That move was prompted by the
arrival of 25 PCs that all turned out to have defective motherboards.


Company representatives fixed the problems. Ringer said, "We made them stay for
two weeks."


ITS will launch a brown-bag lunch program in February to educate users about desktop
technology, Drucker said.


A multimedia computer-based training program from ViaGrafix of Pryor, Okla., is
available to teach users Win95 and Office 97. About 50 desktop systems at the agency now
have the client software to access the ViaGrafix program running on a CD-ROM server,
Ringer said.


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