Government Technology

FEMA Not On Alert

September 26, 2005 By

The state of emergency caused by back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf Coast states was compounded by communications failures -- including the conspicuous absence of a modern alerting system to provide warnings about the coming threats to cell phones, pagers, and Blackberry devices or other personal digital assistants.

The beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), blamed for the inadequate initial response to Katrina, has also delayed funding to a state-based pilot project to begin modernizing public alerts using widely adopted technologies.

The intelligence reform bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush on December 17, 2004, included a provision for a "pilot study to move warning systems into the modern digital age" that directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- into which the formerly independent FEMA now reports -- to work with other federal agencies and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) to model an emergency alerts system after the Internet-based AMBER Alert portal. The Act required a report on the pilot results within nine months. As that deadline passed in September, there was no report and there was no pilot.

"The Department is in contempt of Congress," claims Peter Ward, a veteran of a decades-long effort to improve public alerting and now an independent consultant to NASCIO on the all-hazard alert pilot, "If I were called by Congress to testify on why public warnings did not go forward, it would only take one word -- FEMA."

Mindful of the Congressional timelines, NASCIO's alerting proposal had requested $1.3 million from FEMA for a "multi-state pilot and a production-ready system in as short as six months." NASCIO and the AMBER Alert portal initially expected a deal with FEMA by mid-January. Through on-again, off-again negotiations in the months since, FEMA lowered the funding level to $520,000, which reduced the scope of the pilot to a single state.

The final figure is a fraction of the $20 million appropriated to DHS by Congress since 2004 for the development of a new system to provide public warnings through conventional broadcasters and a full range of modern communications devices. Even before the flurry of post-Katrina bills, there were plans to add another $5 million for FY 2006. With the federal government expected to spend up to $200 billion on hurricane-related recovery, draft bills supported by the cell phone industry now anticipate apportioning millions of additional dollars to DHS for research and development of a modern public warning system.

Much of that work has already been done. In 2000, nineteen federal agencies with responsibility for public alerting jointly released what became known as the Red Book, which was a framework report for effective disaster warnings that called for an increased role for public-private partnerships. Since then, the alerting community -- comprised of some 130 emergency management experts -- developed and tested the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an open technical OASIS XML standard for public warnings.

NASCIO's proposal is CAP-compliant, relies on a public-private partnership and is based on an end-to-end portal structure that is already working in the real world. "We were surprised at how long it has taken to fulfill a congressional mandate," says Chris Dixon, NASCIO's national issues director, "but we're determined to get to the national roll-out phase."

From the beginning though, the state-based approach appears to have been at odds with a direction favored by Reynold Hoover who, until a recent move to the White House, had served as the director of FEMA's Office of National Security Coordination. Even before the intelligence reform bill was signed, Hoover suggested in an e-mail to members of the alerting community that the NASCIO initiative be combined with a separate congressionally-mandated project and -- ultimately -- rolled into a larger initiative being developed in his office to avoid "an additional time consuming pilot."

The larger initiative became known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning

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