FEMA strives to align guidance, goals and capabilities

FEMA strives to align guidance, goals and capabilities

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US: In a keynote address at GEOINT 2011, William Craig Fugate, Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), US, outlined how the agency plans for and deals with catastrophic disasters. Whether a calamity is the result of a devastating earthquake, the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction, or something else, FEMA’s goal is the same. “Go big, go fast—and be smart about it,” Fugate said.

He noted that this aligns with a recently updated presidential directive about national preparedness that calls for the creation of a secure and resilient nation. Achieving that outcome requires the use of geospatial information and tools. Some of what’s needed already exists as a result of NGA analysts being put in the field to witness what FEMA personnel actually do in a crisis. Other tools and geospatial products still have to be created.

FEMA, noted Fugate, coordinates the federal government’s preparation before a disaster and its response afterwards. In planning, the agency follows a maximum of maximum approach. Using these criteria, this year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami fall within the parameters of an expected event. Geospatial information plays an important role in setting the scope of events that must be considered possible and in the staging of resources.

As for a response, most of that in the US will come from local governments, the commercial sector and the public at large. The last presents the possibility of crowd sourcing as a way to illuminate the extent and nature of a problem. For example, information from the public about the earthquake that struck the East Coast in 2011 arrived as fast as or faster than that from government agencies. The power of the many data points provided by smartphones can be harnessed to improve this information source. Something as simple as locating where phone communication gaps exist can map out the extent of a problem. More complex variations on this approach could allow the response to a disaster to be adjusted on the fly. Timely tweaks to a response are critical, as treating the injured within the first 72 hours significantly improves their chance of survival.

What’s more, the advent of smartphones means that both the public and first responders have tools to access critical information. That data, however, can’t be in some challenging format, such as a PDF that is difficult to read on a small screen. It also can’t require the use of an app that is unfamiliar, Fugate said.
“It’s what you do every day that you go to when a crisis hits,” he pointed out.

He acknowledged that the agency has to do a better job of providing people with the right geospatial tools and the appropriate information. Accomplishing that will, in part, require freeing data. Another key will be figuring out ways to assure needed security without compromising performance. Standards could make both tasks easier.

For both preparation and response, it’s important to keep in mind that during a disaster, lines of protocol dissolve. Fugate briefly summarised how the various branches of local, state and federal governments are supposed to interact during a disaster, with defined responsibilities and lines of command. But, this picture isn’t reality, he said. “It doesn’t work that way in real life. You work as a team.”

Source: KMI Media Group