Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 31, 2012

FEMA’s Think Tank

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on January 31, 2012

Last week a friend told me about a FEMA “think tank” website (thanks, Sam).

The site, located at http://fema.ideascale.com, looks to be an open-to-the-world (once you register) version of TSA’s “idea factory.”

According to FEMA, the agency is

…reaching out to state, local, and tribal governments, and to all members of the public, including the private sector, the disability community, and volunteer community, to seek their input on how to improve the emergency management system.

No doubt you’ve heard that language before.  But this effort looks like a significant improvement over initial DHS efforts (e.g., Quadrennial Homeland  Security Review) to incorporate stakeholder ideas through wisdom-of-the-crowd-like social networking.

After you register for the FEMA think tank site, you can submit an idea, or comment and vote for or against other ideas.  According to the website, “The best ideas bubble up to the top.” The voting (agree/disagree) option helps moderate entries from the good idea fairy.

It looks as if the site has been operating since mid-November.  Starting last Thursday, FEMA hosts a monthly conference call, open to the public, to discuss some of the ideas and what to do about them.

The site is hosted by a private sector web-based product called IdeaScale. The Comments and Privacy Policy contain quasi-draconian cautions, augmented by FEMA’s reminder that IdeaScale is “a private entity whose server is not under the control of FEMA and whose collection of information is not protected by the Privacy Act of 1974” and so on.

IdeaScale claims it can use Think Tank ideas almost anyway it wants to.

For this and several other reasons, perhaps FEMA’s Think Tank can be criticised for not being perfect. Using IdeaScale’s off the shelf (or technically off the web) product is a public/private partnership for a cyber world. And there is a lot we have not discovered about those partnerships.

FEMA is taking a risk here. But increasingly the world’s complexity demands intelligent trial and error initiatives, like FEMA’s Think Tank.  It seems like a good example of what David Snowden has written about as a safe fail probe.

Reading through the ideas and the comments, it looks like FEMA may be on to something with the Think Tank.

As of January 30th, there were over 1300 registered users, 296 ideas, 1371 comments, and 5515 votes helping ideas “bubble to the top.”

The ideas and comments were almost always thoughtful and improvement oriented.  I did not see one “let’s flood the border with land mines” suggestion.  The extended discussion about PPD 8 is especially worthwhile.


Here are the top 20 ideas — and partial descriptions taken from the website — discussed on the FEMA Think Tank (as of last night):

  1. U.S. National Grid as the Response Language of Location: Through NIMS and ICS, the leadership of DHS and FEMA have directed the phased introduction of numerous operational standards designed to promote and facilitate interoperability for the Emergency Services Sector. Yet, to date, they are without voice when it comes to the single most important element of response – the ability to communicate “where”…. Long ago, the U.S. Armed Forces realized that effective delivery of mission required every part of a “response force” in an operational realm (air, land, sea) had to use the same language of location…. It’s now long past due that the executive leadership of DHS and FEMA do the same thing through a national policy directive.
  2. Incorporate Preparedness in School Curriculums: Disaster preparedness should be taught as part of the school curriculum for children of all ages.
  3. EM [Emergency Management] Coffee Break Training: … The EM Coffee Break Training could provide this platform through weekly dessimination of one page lectures that would roughly take 5-10 minutes (long enough to finish a cup of coffee) to read. Each lesson could be reviewed individually or as a group and could provide supplemental information for further research or suggestions.
  4. School issues: In an emergency everyone turns to the schools, unfortunately most are not prepared, not trained, and emergency responders run up against rules that are frustrating at the least and life threatening at the worse. It would be nice if some how FEMA could offer the training because it won’t be done at the school level, not because it isn’t needed, but because of drastic budget cuts in education.
  5. Let the locals do the thinking: I have been involved with Emer. Mgt. for 20 years. I have managed 7 Presidential disasters and many more local emergencies. My biggest problem is FEMA/Homeland Security and the State. The federal and state government has placed a mountain of paperwork on my desk that restricts my ability to complete the real work within my community. A 10 minute piece of paperwork to report an exercise 20 years ago has escalated into the HSEEP monster with days of work and for what?…. I think if FEMA would really like to know what is best for the country and the local programs they first need to consider what would help the locals by asking for our input before they issued another mandate. We know what is best for our community because we live here.
  6. Mobile Apps For FEMA Employees And The Public Utilizing GPS: An app that utilizes GPS coordinates to aid in disaster response, send relevant emergency alerts to the user, and ability to locate loved ones by last known location.
  7. EAS [Emergency Alert System: The EAS should include all cell phones.
  8. “Be Prepared” campaign: One of the things I heard from the leaders of FEMA was: the citizens need to be ready to help themselves. Not just that, but specifically stated: the federal government is not going to be there for you right away. Unfortunately, I only heard this for about a week before it was abandoned. You can spend all you want on CERTs, exercises, equipment, etc, etc. You can spend fractions of that money on an information campaign and have the citizenry help themselves.
  9. Bring Back Project Impact: Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt created Project Impact in 1997 with the goal to create “disaster resilient communities”. Overall the program was considered a resounding success; not only did it help communities become more disaster resilient, but it also was a success at “bringing people from diverse sectors of the community together to address mitigation issues”.
  10. Utilize resources already in disaster zone: During Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart gave their employees approval days in advance to do “whatever they had to help the citizens”. I think to help with disaster relief at any level, the government should partner up with larger community based retailers that are already in the areas.
  11. Utilizing 2-1-1 in Disasters: I work for an NGO in Columbus, Ohio. One of the greatest skills we can bring to a disaster is assistance in Emergency Public Informaiton via our 24/7/365 Information and Referral line, 2-1-1. 2-1-1 is an easy, three digit number for citizens to call to get assistance with rent, utilities, food, etc. (during normal operations).
  12. Corporate America Planning: As the Emergency Manager for a fortune 25 company with over 400 active facilities to manage. It’s difficult to find any formal Emergency Management training that includes office buildings, clinics, data centers, etc.
  13. Community Mapping to implement the Whole Community Concept: In addition to mapping of risk and protective factors, [community mapping] makes the whole community more resilient by…Bringing the community together to collectively plan, which increases the sense of ownership and responsibility on the disaster response and recovery activities….
  14. Preparedness and Sustainability Linkage: Many sustainable practices pay dividends in a disaster. Bicycle transportation, gardening, water catchment, canning, solar power etc are all examples of activities which make communities better places to live AND make communities more self-relient when infrastructure and critical supplies are halted.
  15. Federal Disaster Management Externship program: … a large percentage of the existing Emergency Management leaders [will] be retiring beginning in the next 5 years. The question, we the students, no matter the level of education [asked] is “How are we to gain experience in the field in the next five years while we wait our turn at the few existing emergency management positions?”
  16. Preliminary Damage Assessments by Smartphone: FEMA should produce a smart phone application that allows the capture and upload of georeferenced text and photo’s during a disaster.
  17. 24/7 Field Triage Preparedness: The recognition & adoption of a standardized national illuminated color coded system for triaging MCI patients 24/7. Today different States & organizations use different triage cards and tapes for triaging patients.
  18. Alert Systems: Many cities have or belong to an Emergency Alert system. I did not see any alerts during your testing. … Nor did I see anything on facebook or twitter until the test was over and everyone was asking if it worked.
  19. ICS / NIMS Training: Whether by DHS or FEMA or the CDP, I think all involved need to re-think the limited training opportunities for ICS and NIMS training.
  20. Hazard Reporting – All-Hazards Feedback: USGS has a website for “Did you feel it” to allow people to report on earthquakes that were felt – http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/dyfi/. A similar type of approach from other hazard partners would be helpful (NWS, USGS, NOAA, etc).


TL; DR: FEMA is soliciting ideas online about how to improve emergency management. Some of the ideas are intriguing.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 31, 2012 @ 8:06 am

This is a useful post. Unfortunately many of the 20 items selected are what I call “bureaucratic orphans” meaning that little possibility they would be adopted or even studied because no organization in the current FEMA has them as driver or even a factor in their decision making.
Like many organizations that are largely led by an authoritarian management that dislikes real changes in its mission, goals, programs, functions, or activities there are few authorized “change agents” in FEMA. Perhaps the Think Tank is an attempt to fix that problem.
Oddly despite its relatively larger size as to staff in recent years many critical programs, functions, and activities are only one or two deep in staffing.

A relatively simple effort to fix much of the above could be done relatively fast. Break down all programs, functions, and activities by budget and assigned staff and determine where misallocations occur.

The day I left FEMA [October 1st, 1999] less than one dozen people in FEMA actually were competent in the budget process. Less than one dozen program officials were competent in the procurement process. Few understood how to police waste, fraud,and abuse in their programs, functions, and activities. When I offered to have my litigation staff help the FEMA OIG develop an anti-fraud handbook for each program, function, and activity that was rejected.

Even today policy manuals, compliance with government wide mandates like OMB Grant Guidance documents now codified in the CFR are often ignored largely because the staff has no one bringing these documents to their attention.

And the biggest failure of internal ops in FEMA and probably with respect to the rest of DHS, and OFAs [other federal agencies] is the total lack of understanding of what could be brought to the table by FEMA and others in the form of collaboration and cooperation. This liaison is not simple. Much of FEMA ops are dedicated to internal laundry not helping clean up Joe and Suzie Citizen and assisting them through program operations.

Here is an example of what might be done:

1. Brown bag lunches where various FEMA officials explain their programs to others not in that program within FEMA.
2. Brown bag lunches where DHS officials could explain how they help FEMA during its operations and how FEMA helps them.
3. Brown bag lunches wherein OFAs explain to FEMA their roles in disaster relief, e.g., and Homeland Security.

FEMA no longer publishes in the CFR its organization and functions statement, unlike all other federal departments and agencies, nor is its internal directive system well managed and current.

If a Congressional office was to ask FEMA for all the MOU’s and IAA’s funded and unfunded to which FEMA was signatory a panic could occur. Most in FEMA have no idea that any such agreement with budget implications or other fiscal or policy implications must be cleared throughout the agency. Few in HQ have any idea what agreements have been signed by the FEMA regions with OFA or the States and their local governments.

My conclusion is that FEMA fails in the baby steps that represent real competence in an agency. And the entire agency should be redesigned so that 24/7/365 ops could be conducted and should be conducted if necessary.

Perhaps FEMA should have all those in FEMA that deal with DoD be gathered together in one place and probably the size of that gathering would shock some. Or perhaps HHS and CDC. Or DoE or EPA!

And one might ask why in the entirety of its existence FEMA has submitted to OMB and the President and the Congress so few statutory recommendations that might improve ops or result in more effective programs, functions, or activities.

But hey anything that promotes thinking is a good idea. And sometimes it is useful in bureacracies if someone asks if the action to be taken makes common sense. No federal appointee or official lacks the authority to use common sense and if some think so they need reeducation.

Good luck FEMA in the next $10B disaster!

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 31, 2012 @ 9:04 am

Addendum to my earlier comment:

“Of course common sense is not too common” attributed to Mark Twain.

Perhaps some context for my comments might help to promote understanding of them.

First, FEMA is an administrative agency and has no Commerce Clause regulatory authority nor a formal charge through statute or Executive Order to promote or protect public health and safety. Perhaps that should be accomplished. It largely provides money ad information to other federal agencies and the states and their local governments.
Its technical competence is largely in some areas of communications, land use restrictions, insurance mechanisms, and grant law [although this last subject is apparently often not understood by many of the grants administrators in FEMA].
But it operates largely through the STATES and their local governments unlike many other federal agencies. To be effective it must understand the federal system and its operations and implications.
The history of EM in American life is partially documented in the PERI volume “Emergency Management-the American Experience” now under active revision.
Some may wonder what EM is since it is part of FEMA’s name. IMO it is a profession, with its own doctrines, that developed as American society became more complex after WWII, and few in the FIRE SERVICE wanted to abandon their hoses, and in the POLICE Forces abandon their guns and badges and learn how to recover from the almost inevitable natural or technological disaster, whatever its cause.

That profession numbers far less than 20,000 trained practitioners in the entire USA is far outnumbered by the 2.3 million Fire Service personnel or the 1M police at various levels of government.

Those wanting my definition of EM can go to my website at http://www.vacationlanegrp.com N.B. there are many versions elsewhere. Mine focuses on governmental and societal response to disasters, and the organization and implications of that response.

But my comments should not lead some to think that handing out money and information is an easy job for a bureaucrat. It definitely is not. And FEMA is faced with some types of repetitive events but often not. And some of course are the fast breaking, no notice event, that occurs out of the blue.

Comment by FEMA's Reorganization

February 1, 2012 @ 7:19 am

Thank you…thank you Mr. William Cumming. Finally, someone so knowledgeable, an individual so well versed having hands on experience willing to blow the whistle!

I strongly suggest that someone reprint Mr. Cumming’s comments and pass out to FEMA employees as well as to every WH member including Barry Obama and all should read this w/every Congressional member required to reply in public comment and suggestion as well as the emerging candidate for President whomever that may be who will most assuredly be replacing this WH in the next election no matter the war chest coffers for We – young and fellow Elder Americans, legal and dedicated in commitment and Love for our once great Republic, are at great peril not only from within and those who seek our demise (pointing to the Germans (Assyrians) once again in history my friends) and from Mother Nature and our solar system as we spin around in space very much off axis as a result of mankind’s many dysfunctions and elitist greed….

PS – Breaking News: While I hear Iran may be suggesting a strike of some sort here, may I again remind the “Brutes of Tehran” that the American people, most charitable…and the Iranian people, both quite educated, have high regard for one another and while I am a Hellene, all should know the wonderful history of Persians and their contributions so that this regime of thugs who must be removed do not further disgrace the Persian history….by such threats against the Hebrew especially who has special covenant with the Lord and who will survive, however it is my bet as a gambling man that Tehran will become even far more pressured not by an American administration, but by the German-led EU and its close pal, the Vatican and these bullies should be setting their guard for soon, Germany will wield its hand and fist towards Tehran and it will be quite surprised by the power of a newly emerging and resurrgence of Germany who will downsize to only ten (10) nations and deal a fatal blow to Tehran, not the US and not the Israeli….

The time has passed and FEMA needs its overhaul now!

Whatever you can do Mr. Cumming to continue to make such suggestions, please do as those in future need will benefit from a more capable and expedient approach in emergency management and execution of policies.

Christopher Tingus
“Main Street USA”

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