DHS pulls back $5 million from communications project

The Homeland Security Department in late August decided not to spend $5.3 million that had been set aside for a digital interoperable communications tool used to coordinate emergency response with local governments.

DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie said a final decision on whether to shut down Disaster Management, an 8-year-old project designated by the Office of Management and Budget in 2002 as one of 24 e-government initiatives, has not been made. But the department is "saving a lot of money by cutting down on repetitive systems," he said.

The decision to pull back the $5.3 million, which was to come out of a department working capital fund, went before DHS' investment review board, Orluskie said.

DHS Chief Information Officer Scott Charbo believes Disaster Management may duplicate other DHS programs such as the Homeland Security Information Network, Orluskie said. As a result, the department may permanently stop funding the contract that supports Disaster Management, currently held by Ohio-based nonprofit government contractor Battelle.

"I think you can expect the backbone [of Disaster Management] to be replaced," Orluskie said. "That's where they are going to save their money."

A decision has not been made to replace the Battelle system with the Homeland Security Information Network, a project run out of DHS headquarters designed to foster the exchange of threat information around the country, Orluskie said. But Disaster Management is "definitely going to work in conjunction with HSIN," he said.

While the department's fiscal 2007 budget asserts that all 50 states and major urban areas are connected to the network, sources said it lacks the tools provided under the current Disaster Management system and is not used much.

The mission of Disaster Management is to create interoperable communication standards for emergency management software, as well as to distribute free basic disaster management software to local governments that otherwise could not afford to buy such tools.

About 60,000 federal, state and local users have registered to use Disaster Management, and about 1,800 collaborative emergency response groups have downloaded the software. The system helped coordinate emergency assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the Navy recently installed it in its southeastern U.S. bases as a means of coordinating with local governments during emergencies.

In mid-July, DHS issued an order to Battelle to stop development work on Disaster Management, a move seen as an attempt to cancel the project.

At the time, program proponents said pressure from the Defense Department and OMB staved off cancellation. OMB in particular has a stake in keeping the program alive because of its status as one of its official e-government projects. If DHS is unilaterally able to pull the plug on it, some government officials could question whether other agencies might do the same to their e-gov efforts.

Karen Evans, OMB's administrator of e-government and technology, said Thursday that she views the Disaster Management program as part of a general business area that OMB supports. Charbo, she said, "is looking at all of the tools" and investments available to support the management of disasters.

Christopher Kelly, associate director for strategic communications in DHS' Science and Technology Directorate, said in a statement that the funds previously assigned to Disaster Management will be spent "to transition certain operational components" of the program into other projects with similar functions, but he could not name them.

Critics of the DHS move say the lack of a transition plan is evidence that DHS intends to kill the program but is trying to do so quietly.

Kelly said Disaster Management had $7 million in total fiscal 2006 funding. The department is scheduled to spend $10.3 million on the effort in fiscal 2007 from its working capital fund. Kelly said 2006 funding will allow for continued operation through December 2006, when fiscal 2007 funds will become available.

While Disaster Management technically is in an operations and maintenance phase, some development has continued to meet the needs of the program, Kelly said. The supporting hardware and software for the DisasterHelp.gov portal is being upgraded and aligned with other DHS-managed portals, Kelly said. Some updates to the Disaster Management Interoperability Services toolset continue, including adding support for newly approved information exchange standards and for the addition of access to some DMIS information via Web browser, Kelly said.

A government official who supports Disaster Management, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that without the software provided under the program, localities will have to apply for government grants to acquire similar tools.

"They're basically saying we're not subsidizing your effort [toward] becoming more secure and being able to respond to incidents," the source said. "They're saying 'you apply for grants dollars and take it out of that pool because we're not willing to help you.'"

The official said HSIN costs 10 times as much as the Disaster Management system and does not do anything "except make contractors rich."

Mark Zimmerman, a former Disaster Management program manager, said eliminating it will have a harmful effect on the thousands of first responders who have become dependent on the system.

"The program has been very successful from the bottom up," Zimmerman said. "The program has the philosophy of, 'How can we best serve the first responders?'"

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