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The Grill: W. Craig Fugate

The FEMA chief wants to use mobile technology to customize alerts during a disaster.

March 21, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Before becoming administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in May 2009, Craig Fugate was a customer. As director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, he oversaw the state's response to many hurricanes. Since coming to FEMA, he has responded to disasters such as the tsunami in American Samoa and the massive floods in Tennessee last year. Fugate spoke recently about the need for emergency data feeds, how social media can play a role in disaster response, and his vision of a future that includes a proactive, location-based warning system that contacts cell phone users in harm's way and provides detailed instructions on what to do.

W. Craig Fugate

The most interesting thing people don't know about you: I kayak.
The riskiest thing you ever did: I went kayaking during a tropical storm in Florida. I was very foolish.
Your favorite vice: Coffee. Large quantities of it. My staff limits my intake when I have to do public speaking or they can't get me to shut up.
Your favorite technology: Digital cameras.
Your personal philosophy: Live in the moment. I don't worry about the past, and I can't do much about the future. All I can do is what I'm doing right now. In a disaster, that's just about the only way to maintain your sanity.

In what ways does FEMA use IT to accomplish its mission? We're trying to change the way we're using technology. A lot of the things we were doing are no longer relevant, particularly when we look at things like GIS. For a long time, the attitude here was, "Well, we use GIS to print maps." You have to change the mindset of the managers that the tools are a lot more powerful than that. That's where we are now, just getting people to understand it.

We have a Web page, but what good does it do in a disaster if people don't have Web access? But they may have a smartphone. So we did a mobile Web page last year. It's really a simple page. If you're in a disaster area, you don't want to see our org chart and you don't care about our mission statement. What you want to do is find the information pertinent to the event and how to prepare against that threat. So we did a very stripped-down, low-bandwidth page that has pertinent headline information about the big event that's occurring.

FEMA is now pushing out information through social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and a blog. Are you looking to have a conversation with people during a crisis, or just feed them information? We don't have answers, but we can't wait for answers. Nobody has come up with a blueprint that says this is how social media must and will be used in all disasters, because it changes fast. We're trying to figure out how to get into conversations with the public without getting into one-on-one transactions, which would be next to impossible. We do get tweets back and we do try to respond to them, but that's very difficult in a disaster. It's still a learning process for us.

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