Dec 31 2009

Before and After the First Response

FEMA tests new systems to improve communications and track emergency supplies.
Photo: James Kegley
In a disaster, everyone needs to have a common picture — that requires a more open, but also more secure, network, FEMA’s Jeanne Etzel and Rex Whitacre say.

The first responders have left, but not the devastation. It’s more than a year since hurricanes Katrina and Rita whipped ashore along the Gulf Coast, but for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the job of helping restore the region and providing services to the people continues.

To help with that work, FEMA has begun a pilot to track equipment, food and supplies sent to disaster areas — the work that comes after the first team decamps from a disaster zone. Meanwhile, it’s also testing a tool to help even before the first responders show up — a network to provide a common operating picture to White House, Homeland Security Department and FEMA officials working at different locations. FEMA also is making critical changes to its operations and pre-disaster planning to improve interoperability and communications at all levels of government.

“These are some of the outcomes of the ‘hot washes’ from Katrina,” says FEMA acting CIO Jeanne Etzel, referring to the post-Katrina meetings where officials evaluated what worked well and what didn’t. The government rolled out many of the new programs and information technology for limited use during the 2006 hurricane season that are undergoing evaluation now.

FEMA came under heavy criticism for what federal officials acknowledged was a slow and inadequate response to Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and other cities along the coast in August 2005.

Challenge Going Forward

Among the problems FEMA encountered were inadequate planning and an inability to track supplies or ensure that they reached their assigned destinations. In addition, communications systems didn’t work as planned, and top officials within Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent agency, did not always have a clear picture of the situation on the ground. Although FEMA is not solely to blame for these problems, since Katrina, its officials have been applying the hurricane’s lessons learned to upgrade disaster-related systems and improve their emergency response capabilities.

One of these improvements is the new Total Asset Visibility System, which tracks commodities using Global Positioning System (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technology. FEMA is testing the system with six major commodities: water, ice, meals, plastic sheeting, tarps and generators. In the past, FEMA officials did not have the capability to track supplies. The Transportation Department subcontracts the work to trucking companies, which in turn often hire the tractor-trailers and drivers. Monitoring individual trucks and drivers was virtually impossible.

“There were thousands of trucks on the road at any one point in time, but once we shipped a truckload of product, we had no idea where it was, with the exception of calling drivers on their cell phones. And we don’t necessarily have everyone’s phone number,” Etzel says.

But now each trailer leaves with a GPS device attached. FEMA employees provide the Total Asset Visibility System with information about the type of commodities the trailer is carrying, and they signal the GPS device every 30 minutes to determine where it is.

FEMA is also piloting a common operating picture so that officials at the White House, Homeland Security and FEMA can all view the same information simultaneously. “One of the challenges of communicating during Katrina was that everyone had a different picture of what was going on,” Etzel says.

Homeland Security developed the application using existing technology. It includes a variety of elements, such as video from the incident site, GIS and mapping data on the location of commodities, shelters and medical teams, and situation reports from the field.

Team Tactic

FEMA also is moving to work more closely with other DHS organizations during a disaster. “Katrina was more of a FEMA response than a DHS response because that’s what we had done in the past,” says Rex Whitacre, the agency’s chief of enterprise operations.

At joint field offices, for example, FEMA now lets representatives from all DHS agencies connect to their home agencies directly through the FEMA network. Previously, FEMA had to set up additional circuits and subnets for officials from other DHS agencies. But after working with cybersecurity experts, FEMA “opened up the firewalls at the current joint field offices to allow people to access their tools so they can work in real-time,” Whitacre says.

In the past year, FEMA has worked to improve communications at the state and local levels. The agency, in partnership with several other federal offices, has launched a program to help state and local authorities develop communications plans for future disasters. By bringing together representatives from the police, fire department and other first responders, FEMA wants to facilitate the pre-planning necessary for effective emergency response.

“They need to pre-plan such things as what frequencies will be used by whom and for what purpose,” says Gordon Fullerton, a senior adviser to the CIO. “For example, what frequencies do we use to coordinate searches from the air, sea and land?”

FEMA is leading this effort with the General Services Administration and, within DHS, the CIO’s Wireless Management Office and National Communications System. These agencies also have brought other federal agencies into the pre-planning process, such as the Treasury and Justice departments, which also need to connect with state and local governments during emergencies. So far, FEMA has helped develop plans in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and intends to continue the pre-planning process throughout the United States.

Fullerton emphasizes that the federal government is not dictating its communication plans to state and local organizations. In fact, the reverse is true. “This is not a federal plan. We get the local and state officials together and then they work up a community plan that the feds are tied into,” Fullerton says.