How Sept. 11 unified state, federal efforts

How Sept. 11 unified state, federal efforts

Federal Emergency Management Agency CIO Ron Miller seeks to coordinate his agency's IT infrastructure with the states' emergency management agencies.

'The fact is, when we look at state budgets, we are looking at where to tighten, and it's a heck of a challenge to try to build new IT capabilities,' Ohio's Dale Shipley said.

FEMA has a 3-year plan for coordination

State and local emergency management agencies have worked for years with their federal counterparts to help prepare for and mitigate the consequences of natural disasters, but today they face a continual, nationwide terror threat. Already, federal and state IT professionals are preparing for the new challenge.

To improve federal coordination with states, Federal Emergency Management Agency CIO Ron Miller has a three-year plan that includes converting his agency's existing system for distributing disaster assistance to a Web system. He also plans to build a model database architecture that states can voluntarily adopt to improve compatibility.

But the process of improving coordination won't be easy. Some state officials worry that they still will have to coordinate data exchanges with multiple federal agencies. State emergency managers must ensure that their systems are compatible with county systems as well as with FEMA's. And, at a time when state budgets are under pressure from the recession, the new resource demands of the war on terrorism mean less money coming from Washington.

The National Emergency Management Information System, which FEMA uses to gather and process data needed to issue benefits checks, is serviceable but fragile, Miller said.

NEMIS is a client-server system that uses an Oracle8 database management system running on Microsoft Windows NT and Outlook Messaging. The system is only accessible on FEMA's internal Ethernet.

'We are looking at Sun [Microsystems Inc. servers] as a new component for NEMIS to provide us with a little more robustness and a little more security,' Miller said. 'The Sun platform is pretty robust.'

State officials agree that NEMIS can fail during disasters and halt the process of distributing benefits.

Chuck McHugh, assistant director of the Arizona Emergency and Military Affairs Department, said, 'From a user standpoint, [NEMIS] needs further work in development to speed up its functionality and reliability.

'It crashes fairly frequently. That slows down the administrative process,' McHugh said. 'When it does go down, FEMA says, 'The system is slow; we are waiting to get information out of the system.' '

McHugh said he would welcome a Web system such as that envisioned by Miller. Noting that FEMA gathers an enormous amount of data in the process of responding to a disaster, McHugh said, 'What we need is quick and easy access to that data.

'In an ideal world, if we could access it through the Internet through appropriate security measures and passwords, that would be highly useful to us,' he said.

Miller said the Web system would have little resemblance architecturally to NEMIS. His three-year schedule for developing the as-yet unnamed system is imposed by resource constraints, he said.

The Web system would be accessible to the public 'for things like [filling out relief] applications and to allow them to be able to inquire about the status of an application for assistance,' Miller said.

Doing that will require a method of identifying users by digital signatures or other authentication means, Miller said, and FEMA has not yet solved the problem of positively identifying potential beneficiaries.

The Web system will let victims and emergency officials conduct transactions. There will be secure sections for state and federal emergency officials.

FEMA's upgraded system will combine the Web capability with a new virtual private network for communicating with state emergency management agencies.

Often, FEMA's first step in an emergency is setting up a T1 line for the state for the duration of the agency's engagement, then retrieving the line.

'However, in many cases the states were really taken with the capability it provided for them to have interaction with FEMA,' Miller said. As a result, FEMA sometimes left the lines behind at its own expense.

With VPN capability in the new system, FEMA will be able to extend long-term broadband communications to all states at less expense than building T1 lines, Miller said.

Meanwhile, FEMA will develop a model architecture for database management systems that state emergency management agencies use. Miller expects to run a pilot of the architecture with one state. 'We need to ensure that we put a design out there, but we are not going to mandate that they do it that way,' he said.

Making models

The architecture will specify data owners for types of data used in the emergency management process, such as the financial and personal data of those who need aid.

'Process owners would define the types of fields and lengths and other things that would apply to that kind of data, and then any other application that would want to use that data would have to adhere to that model,' Miller said.

Dale Shipley, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, also said he would welcome the proposed FEMA data architecture.

'We would look at the FEMA architecture very seriously, especially if FEMA would reach out to other federal agencies and orchestrate this,' Shipley said. 'I don't need 40 federal agencies to figure this out'FEMA could be the logical one.' He also endorsed Miller's plans for adopting a Web system.

Shipley also pointed to the need to combine state and federal IT resources to improve disaster preparedness. 'One of our biggest problems is sharing information quickly to a broad audience,' he said. 'I can deal quickly one-on-one, but I can't deal quickly with 50 states or [Ohio's] 88 counties.'

Ohio's EMA uses SoftRisk from SoftRisk Inc. of St. Simons Island, Ga., which works with a Microsoft SQL Server database, said Mark Morrill, data systems director for the agency. He cautioned that while Ohio would follow the FEMA architecture if it was compatible, 'we also have to follow what counties are doing. ... We do not know what the FEMA architecture is going to look like yet.'

As for funding, though FEMA spends about $90 million to $100 million annually on IT, depending on the number and extent of disasters, its support for state emergency management IT will be provided only on an in-kind basis. Miller said.

Meanwhile, as Shipley said, 'The fact is, when we look at state budgets, we are looking at where to tighten, and it's a heck of a challenge to try to build new IT capabilities.'


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