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FEMA Not on Alert

Federal agency defies Congress and delays state-based approach to emergency alerting.

by / November 4, 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 send warnings to cell phones, pagers and PDAs.

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

The intelligence reform bill, signed by President Bush on Dec. 17, 2004, included a provision for a pilot study "to move warning systems into the modern digital age." The provision directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- to 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 alert system after the Amber Alert Portal.

The act required NASCIO to report on the pilot's results within nine months. As that deadline passed in September, there was no report, and there was no pilot.

"The [agency] is in contempt of Congress," claimed Peter Ward, a veteran of a decades-long effort to improve public alerting. "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 congressional timelines, NASCIO's alerting proposal 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 funding to $520,000, which reduced the pilot's scope to a single state.

That figure is a fraction of the $20 million Congress appropriated to the DHS since 2004 for developing a new public warning system utilizing conventional broadcasting media and various modern communications devices. Even before the flurry of post-Katrina bills, there were plans to add another $5 million for fiscal 2006.

"We were surprised at how long it has taken to fulfill a congressional mandate," said Chris Dixon, NASCIO's issues coordinator. "But we're determined to get to the national rollout phase."

From the beginning, NASCIO's state-based approach appeared to conflict with a direction favored by Reynold Hoover who, until a recent move to the White House, directed 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 -- the NASCIO initiative be combined with a separate, congressionally mandated project and 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 emergency alerts to a funding gatekeeper for everything related to public alerting.

As recently as July 27, 2005, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction, Hoover told lawmakers his office was still finalizing an agreement with NASCIO to add another dimension to a "national all hazards IPAWS."

At last word, the pilot funding remained in the DHS's acquisition process -- even as Congress began looking to claw back appropriations to help fund hurricane recovery efforts as the hopper filled with new bills to funnel billions in new infrastructure funds.

There is a growing sense that emergency alerting is the nation's next critical infrastructure.

"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," Dixon said.

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 additional funds for the national build-out of the state-based initiative and other allied alerting programs.

Or it could unintentionally swamp the NASCIO-sponsored state solution with a centrally controlled federal system, which could do for alerting what the creation of the DHS did for FEMA.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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