FEMA's Foul-up

Report says agency's computer systems failed to track supplies during last year's hurricane season.
The Transportation Security Administration isn't the only Department of Homeland Security agency facing tough questions about IT that's critical to its operation. An audit of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's IT system, released last week, claims the agency's computers were overwhelmed during the 2004 hurricane season, hindered disaster-recovery efforts, delayed emergency supply shipments, and put emergency-response personnel at risk.

Under particular scrutiny in the report, prepared by Homeland Security's inspector general, is FEMA's Logistics Information Management System, or LIMS III, for managing the agency's inventory of equipment and supplies. The report found that during August and September last year when four hurricanes battered Florida, the IT system was incapable of tracking essential commodities such as ice, water, and tents.

The main problem cited is that LIMS III isn't integrated with other FEMA IT systems such as the database used to identify and deploy personnel to disaster sites. Nor can it share information across federal, state, and local agencies. But that's not entirely surprising; LIMS was designed to track "accountable property" such as bar-coded cellular phones and pagers, not "bulk commodities," a Homeland Security spokeswoman says.

While LIMS III contains information on the quantity, availability, and location of emergency supplies, it doesn't indicate when they will ship or arrive. Emergency personnel in Florida tracked items on spreadsheets and spent hours calling trucking companies to determine the status of goods in transit.

The report was given to FEMA director Michael Brown several weeks before Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and the Mississippi coast. But Brown and FEMA CIO Barry West rejected the inspector general's findings, calling the report inaccurate. However, Homeland Security has been working on FEMA's logistics-management IT systems. "Logistics-support systems have presented us with some concerns over the past 18 months, and we are addressing this," a spokeswoman says.

During Katrina relief efforts, FEMA tested the Total Asset Visibility system, which uses global-positioning technology to track trucks carrying commodities. FEMA also is installing an electronic document system to replace paper documents and improve data sharing among Homeland Security officials via an intranet. And the Emergency Preparedness and Response division--of which FEMA is now a part--established an Enterprise Architecture Office in 2003 and hired a chief enterprise architect last year to develop an enterprise IT architecture to tie in the directorate's system with the rest of Homeland Security.