[FoRK] FEMA--dire opinion from the strangest magazine=govtech

Tracie K Meyer con10gent_sentience
Wed Oct 5 11:43:01 PDT 2005

 "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
FEMA Not On Alert
By Paul W. Taylor 

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

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.
*disclaimer:distributed for educational purposes only blah blah blah
etcera et al*

If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness
When everything is as it was in my childhood
Violent,vivid,and of infinite possibility:
That the sun and moon broke over my head.-preface,
'Feast of Snakes'

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