Locals pan DHS decision to ditch communications project

County officials upset by phase-out of tool to distribute disaster management software and establish interoperability standards.

The Homeland Security Department's effort to scrap a digital communications tool used to coordinate emergency response with local governments has riled a group of county-level officials.

In a June 18 memorandum, Timothy Loewenstein, chairman of the information technology committee at the National Association of Counties, told the DHS technology chief that discontinuing or diminishing the Disaster Management program without talking to the users was unacceptable.

"If your office continues to shift system strategies and withhold critical information from users, we do not believe the president's vision for intergovernmental partnership in the area of disaster management is achievable," Loewenstein said. "The president's e-government strategy asserts that the government-to-government customer segment was created to 'enable federal, state and local governments to more easily work together to better serve citizens within key lines of business.' "

Disaster Management's mission is to create interoperable communication standards for emergency management software and to distribute free basic disaster management software to local governments that otherwise could not afford to buy such tools.

Loewenstein, who also serves as the vice chair of the association's technology and telecommunications committee and is on the Buffalo County, Neb., Board of Supervisors, told Government Executive that the Disaster Management tool is critical for emergency response in rural America. Loewenstein is also the chair of the Disaster Management Practitioner Steering Group, which provides input and recommendations on the program.

"Lives are at stake," Loewenstein said. "I am very passionate about making sure rural America has reasonable tools to use when they have to respond on the worst days."

The memo was addressed to DHS Chief Information Officer Scott Charbo. The Office of Management and Budget's administrator of e-government and technology, Karen Evans, was one of the many officials copied on the message. A list of about a dozen questions accompanied the memo with a request for a response by June 25.

An OMB spokeswoman said that "as with all presidential e-government initiatives, OMB works closely with the managing partner agencies to ensure quality services are delivered and maintained. To the extent that changes occur, OMB encourages open communication with users."

In August 2006, DHS decided not to spend $5.3 million that had been set aside for the tool, despite the project's status as one of the Bush administration's e-government initiatives.

A DHS spokesman said the department would let Charbo respond to Loewenstein, rather than providing a response through the media. He said he did not think Charbo had responded yet.

"There is repetition in some of the systems, so the idea is to make some changes [for the betterment of] our first responder community and the public," the spokesman said.

According to Loewenstein's memo, Charbo's office has implemented a "rationalization project" that will transfer Disaster Management tools to the Homeland Security Information Network and the department's public affairs office.

In April, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, ranking member of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, told President Bush in a letter that Disaster Management's Web portal -- DisasterHelp.gov -- fails in providing citizens an all-inclusive Web site with links to the "wide range of public assistance available after disasters strike."

Snowe cited the fact that DisasterHelp.gov has registered "only 41,693" users since August 2005 and said much of the information on the Web site was outdated.

"DisasterHelp.gov should be an indispensable tool to citizens, state and local governments before, during and after a catastrophe," Snowe said. "I urge you to harness the vast resources of the federal government and make this Web site realize its promise."