FEMA Not On Alert

"The Department is in contempt of Congress. If I were called by Congress to testify on why public warnings did not go forward, it would only take one word: FEMA" -- NASCIO Consultant Peter Ward

by / September 26, 2005
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 System (IPAWS) and has been used to expand the office's narrow responsibilities for initiating national-level emergency alerts to a funding gatekeeper for all things related to public alerting. Funds have been used to upgrade some existing systems, conduct preliminary research, development and testing with a large systems integrator and place NOAA All Hazards weather radios in a select number of public schools across the country. Still, IPAWS remains largely conceptual, doing little to address the "hodgepodge" of inadequate, aging and arcane systems cited by a new report by the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress.

As recently as July 27, 2005, in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction, Hoover told lawmakers that his office was still finalizing an agreement with NASCIO to add "another powerful dimension" to a "national all hazards IPAWS." At last word, the pilot funding remained in the DHS acquisition process -- even as Congress began looking to claw back appropriations to help fund hurricane recovery efforts.

"Alerting is primarily a state and local responsibility so it made sense for state CIOs to take an active role in this," observes Dixon, "NASCIO got involved because alerting provided a great platform for demonstrating how the Internet can transform old ways of doing things." As importantly, there is a growing sense that nimble and robust alerting network is the nation's next critical infrastructure. To that end, says Dixon, "state CIOs wanted to get out in front now so that, years from now, they would not have to find a way to unify disparate alerting systems after the fact."

The renewed Congressional interest in warning systems could cut both ways for the state-based approach to a national alerting program. It could shake loose the long-awaited funds to meet the original mandate and provide addition funds for the national build out of this and other allied alerting initiatives. It could also have the unintended consequence of swamping the NASCIO-sponsored state solution with a centrally-controlled federal system that could do for alerting what the creation of the Department of Homeland Security did for FEMA.

"Government is getting in its own way," says Chris Warner, president of E2C, the company that was the catalyst for the AMBER Alert portal on which the all-hazard pilot would be modeled, "The stakes are just too high not to try to fix this."

Ward sees a sad irony in the gulf coast tragedies, "What has been missing was a catalyst for a national public alerting system. Now you finally have a catalyst and you wish you didn't."

FEMA did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

Platforms & Programs