FEMA's IT systems and disaster recovery efforts

There are some rather distressing things in the 67-page inspector general's report released this week about FEMA's IT problems. Keep in mind this is an agency set up to deal with disasters and other emergencies:

FEMA systems were unable to handle effectively the significantly increased workloads required to support disaster victim application processing during the 2004 hurricanes. According to FEMA personnel, they lacked email server space to accommodate messages and reports sent from state and local emergency centers. If someone did not routinely clear the emails from the server, its capacity would fill up—sometimes as much as five to ten times per day—and the system could crash. At one point, the system was down for two hours at the height of the Florida disasters. Workers could not save or download documents. Rather than expand server capacity to resolve the problem, all workers had to log off of the email server while someone moved emails from the queue file by file.

Further, the surge of disaster victim registrations resulting from [last year's] Florida hurricanes overloaded NEMIS’ main server, pushing the system beyond its limit. ...The volume of transactions and the number of personnel managing these registrations significantly slowed down the system or made it unavailable for use during peak operations.

An agency whose sole reason for being is to deal with widescale disasters, and their IT systems weren't designed to deal with peak demand issues? E-commerce companies figured this out during holiday shopping seasons of the late '90s.

Users were unable to perform their jobs in the system and consequently reverted to paper-based methods. When NEMIS’ main server went down, approximately 2,000 IT users were kicked out of the system for as long as 20 to 30 minutes at a time.

That's somewhat annoying when I try to call my local newspaper to stop service before I go on vacation. It's quite a bit more serious when trying to help victims of major disasters apply for assistance.


the mail-processing center at the National Processing Service Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, was unable to handle the surge in letter production required during the Florida hurricanes. FEMA employees select and print batches of letters to the victims, categorized by different disaster situations. However, this process became difficult during the 2004 hurricanes because of the increased volume of letters that had to be prepared. No provision had been made for surge printing capability.

And so on. We can only hope that these systems are overhauled before the next time they're needed in emergency.


Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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