Agencies shore up as hurricane season looms

With '05 problems still fresh, FEMA, others vow to improve info sharing

"We want to get information to the right people, better link [DHS] entities and coordinate how the information will flow and who will work with whom."'Barry West, FEMA CIO

Rick steele

This hurricane season, things will be different, federal officials are promising.
For one thing, information sharing will improve, they say: from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's use of the Global Positioning System to track the flow of food, water, medical supplies and other important items, to weekly meetings of law enforcement officials across all levels of government.

'Part of our FEMA retooling [a plan initiated in December] includes looking at logistics, situational awareness and emergency communications,' said FEMA CIO Barry West. 'We want to get information to the right people, better link [Department of Homeland Security] entities and coordinate how the information will flow and who will work with whom.'

Justice Department CIO Vance Hitch told lawmakers during a recent House Government Reform Committee hearing that federal, state and local organizations have made disaster planning a part of their routine. 'We have weekly cross-government meetings to develop concept of operations, and we have technology to share information more effectively,' he said.

Better communications

For FEMA, better communications starts internally and extends to all levels of government.

West said the situational awareness plan should be ready by June 1 and will include a revised set of policies and procedures, possibly some collaboration software and videoconferencing capabilities, to ensure everyone is familiar with command-and-control processes.

The GPS logistics system, which FEMA is using in the Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, regions, will give officials real-time tracking capabilities for commodities go-ing to disaster victims.

'That is something we haven't had before and it has been an issue for us,' West said. 'It will help for preplanning and staging.'

FEMA hired Stratix Corp. of Norcross, Ga., in September under a $6.2 million contract to develop the system.

Additionally, West said the National Emergency Management Information System can now handle more than 200,000 registrations a day, up from 107,000 at its peak last year and 60,000 two years ago.

West's office switched most of its servers to the Linux operating system and upgraded FEMA's routers and switches so they are IP Version 6-ready. NEMIS also will move its databases to Oracle 10g later this year, West added.

And with less than 60 days until the next hurricane season starts, Congress is paying close attention to how agencies are applying the lessons of last summer.

'How can we avoid the inadequate information sharing and murky situational awareness that characterized the governmental response to Katrina?' asked Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, during a recent hearing on information sharing during disasters. 'The committee is interested in learning about whether there is a need for additional legislation, guidance, procedures or resources to facilitate the information sharing priorities.'

While DHS officials declined to testify before the committee, Justice and Defense Department representatives tried to alleviate the committee's concerns.

Linton Wells II, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration, said DOD has demonstrated efficient communications in Iraq and Afghanistan, and during events such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia.
That could serve as a model in domestic emergencies, but Wells said the federal government needs to have 'command-and-control capabilities, supporting facilities and infrastructure to ensure uninterrupted connectivity and coordination in accordance with constitutional authorities.'

Future goals

He outlined 12 goals for the government, including having a dependable and trusted network; having enough bandwidth, frequency and computing capabilities within the spectrum management process; having the capability to consistently refresh the situational content; and being able to apply federal data-tagging standards and information assurance policies.

Wells also called for the development of a better social network that ensures that first responders and others understand each other's operating practices.

In response to a question from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) about communications standards, Justice CIO Hitch described the Integrated Wireless Network project, which he said should be awarded 'soon.' IWN is planned as a nationwide communications network for law enforcement officials.

But Hitch said it would take about five years for Justice to fully implement IWN across the country, a timetable that seemed to bother Cummings.

Wells also said that IP phones offer a way for disparate systems to talk more easily. Another solution is for the federal government to keep a set of vendors on retainer for leased communication equipment and services in case of disaster with the plan to roll out in 12 hours or less.


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