CIO Barry West: Federal Emergency Management Agency – Managing the Perfect IT Storm

As Florida recovered from Hurricane Charley and prepared for Hurricane Frances in August 2004, another tropical storm brewing off the coast of South America caught the attention of the National Weather Service (NWS). By the time the storm graduated to a Category 1 hurricane, NWS had brought the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into the loop to help prepare as officials tracked the storm's path.

"We start planning for these events weeks in advance," says Barry West, CIO of FEMA. "We knew that Hurricane Ivan was going to be very nasty." As Ivan progressed into a Category 5 hurricane and headed toward Grenada, FEMA-led emergency teams sprang into action. The teams included personnel from the General Services Administration; the departments of Transportation, Energy, and Health and Human Services; the Red Cross; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others.

The barrage of hurricanes that pummeled the Southeast in the weeks leading up to West's first anniversary as FEMA's IT chief put him to the test. The use of sophisticated storm-tracking and emergency-response technology helped him pass this exam with flying colors—but it wasn't easy.

"This job is probably one of the more challenging jobs in government," confides West, who took the post in October 2003. "There's always the unexpected [to deal with]. It's been a real challenge, but it's also been exciting and rewarding."

One of the biggest challenges, he says, is synchronizing FEMA's operations with the 22 disparate organizations that now make up the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Most of those groups must work together during crises, such as the recent spate of deadly hurricanes.

In the fall, West, joined by Terri Ware, executive officer to the CIO, talked with Fed Tech about the ways in which technology has changed how the country confronts and responds to disasters.

Fed Tech: What technology do you consider mission-critical at FEMA?

West: The communications piece is key. We need to keep that backbone up, including the phones and the networks. We're constantly giving FEMA business units up-to-date information. Geographic information systems also play a key role. We can, for instance, map out where schools are located and where rivers are located. FEMA Undersecretary Mike Brown has used these maps to brief the president.

Out in the field, the notebook PC is big, because we've got all these people who need disaster relief right away. We have a 1-800 number they can call, but a lot of them just come in and work with field officers face to face. For example, we have an office in Orlando, Fla., with 1,500 notebooks and a temporary network on site.

Our [disaster-support] response division has mobile emergency response systems. These mobile units have different capabilities, such as trucks with satellite receivers.

Fed Tech: What actions does FEMA take when a pending emergency is identified?

West: There are other agencies that come into play, such as NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the National Weather Service. I was the CIO there before I came to FEMA. Their projections play a key role.

Five years ago, we were lucky to get a 24- to 48-hour notice of a hurricane. If we had a day or two of warning, we considered ourselves lucky.

But today, we're doing five-day projections, and we're pretty accurate. Think about the number of lives that can be saved with that advance notice.

When Ivan progressed from a tropical storm to a Category 1, we were tracking it and started daily briefings with the National Weather Service. We [work with other agencies] to put plans in place.

For example, the Department of Energy determines when power will be turned back on in disaster areas, and the Corps of Engineers gets involved in removing the debris from those areas.

We can start planning for logistics—things such as ice, fuel, shelter and food. If something's going to hit in the state of Florida, then we may need to put some things in place in Georgia [immediately] rather than waiting until the hurricane hits.

Fed Tech: Since joining FEMA, you've emphasized enterprise architecture. Why is that so important?

West: When I arrived here at FEMA in 2003, we really didn't have an enterprise architecture program in place. So I brought on an enterprise architect and an EA contractor team, and we selected an EA tool. We chose that tool because that's what DHS uses.

Since then, we've created an "as-is" architecture—what we currently have. We have 10 regions within FEMA, four processing centers and the National Emergency Training Center, and we've taken an inventory of all those assets.

Now we're trying to create the " to-be" architecture. That's where we see our strategy moving. We're mapping the gap analysis, and we're putting in place a structure of what that will look like. We can then use EA to make valuable decisions about IT and other business and resource areas within the organization.

We're not quite there yet, but we're making significant progress. I'm hoping we'll have our to-be architecture in place by the end of 2004. [This goal was still on target at press time.]

Fed Tech: What do you see as the major to-be items for FEMA?

West: The key is finding out from my business units what their important program goals are. Off the top of my head, I know some of the hot ones will be wireless and interoperability—being able to communicate with other first-responder agencies in different jurisdictions. The information-sharing piece is critical.

Several initiatives are going on. There's one called the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) project, which is being led by the Department of Justice, the Department of the Treasury and DHS. The groups are looking at the whole issue of interoperability.

They want to pilot the IWN in 25 cities, and FEMA will play a role in that. We may house some of the communications requirements for them at FEMA sites. We may even be able to use the project to support our first responders.

One of the other 24 e-government initiatives is called SAFECOM, and that's headed up by the Office of Science and Technology within DHS. That initiative is also addressing interoperability, looking primarily at standards.

Fed Tech: You mentioned wireless as a major future initiative. Where are you on that front?

West: We actually use quite a bit of wireless now. We use a wireless high-frequency radio, and we've got testing going on to let some of our executives use wireless for their notebook PCs.

The biggest issue with wireless is security—making sure everything is encrypted. I think the technology is there: We use encrypted remote-access software. It's more of a policy issue, making sure everybody's on the same page and following the same policy guidelines and rules.

Fed Tech: How can wireless help FEMA achieve its mission?

West: I mentioned the temporary field offices where we have a network to support the field notebook PCs. We have people go out to evaluate disaster areas, inspecting property, houses, etc. I would envision them having [handheld] devices so they can input their observations from the field instead of going into the temporary offices.

Fed Tech: What are some other major FEMA initiatives?

West: Cybersecurity will continue to be a major area for us. We've been focusing on the process to have all our systems certified and accredited.

Fed Tech: What do you consider your biggest accomplishments?

West: I think I've put together a really good team. I've created a good rapport with my counterparts in each of the business units. I've been meeting with each of them every two weeks, one on one. This lets me hear from them what's working and what isn't working. And that's why we're here.

Fed Tech: What have been, or continue to be, your biggest challenges?

West: FEMA is a dynamic organization that's always in the field helping those in need, whether we are dealing with victims of raging fires, tornadoes, hurricanes or floods. It's sometimes challenging to plan and implement an I T program when our IT resources often are deployed to help those in need.

I report to the undersecretary of FEMA [Michael Brown] and have a [reporting relationship] to the DHS CIO [Steven Cooper]. That can be challenging, but, for the most part, it's worked.

Budget issues—having enough funding to move forward with projects while dealing with disasters—continue to present challenges.

THE FILE

Agency Information:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created in 1979, leads the nation in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery through its emergency management program. However, the agency can trace its roots back to congressional legislation enacted after an extensive fire in New Hampshire in 1803.

In March 2003, FEMA became one of five directorates—Emergency Preparedness and Response—under the newly created Department of Homeland Security. FEMA has 2,400 permanent employees and 5,000 reserve staffers.

Personal Biography:

Appointed CIO of FEMA in October 2003, Barry West manages both IT and telecommunications services for the agency and, when required, for the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. He is also an adjunct assistant graduate professor at the University of Maryland University College.

Before joining FEMA, West was CIO of the National Weather Service and deputy director for the Office of Electronic Government at the General Services Administration, where he was technical lead on the FirstGov.gov Web portal. West holds a bachelor of science degree in information systems from Northern Michigan University and a master of science administration degree from Central Michigan University.

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Dec 31 2009