Edited Version April 26, 2000 Transcript
EIIP Tech Arena Online Presentation

"Information Technology in Emergency Management:
Challenges for Management"

Ann Willis, Ph. D.
Systems Engineer
National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA)

Amy Sebring: EIIP Moderator

The original unedited transcript of the April 26, 2000 Tech arena presentation is available in EIIP Virtual Forum Archives <http://www.emforum.org>. The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each input were deleted but the content of questions and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the participants to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Tech Arena! For the benefit of any first-timers, if you see a blue web address, you can click on it and the referenced Web page should appear in a browser window. After the first one, the browser window may not automatically come to the top, so you may need to bring it forward by clicking on a button at the status bar at the bottom of your screen. Then you will need to bring your chat window back to the top in the same way.

We will start with a presentation, and then follow with a Q&A session for your questions and comments. Right before we begin the Q&A portion we will review the procedure. Please do NOT send direct messages to the speaker or moderator as it makes it difficult for us to follow the discussion.

Background information for today's session may be found at <http://www.emforum.org/varena/000426.htm>.


We are very pleased to congratulate our guest, Ann Willis, on completing her Ph.D. through the graduate program at George Washington University. She received her B.S. from Boston University and her M.S. from The Johns Hopkins University. She is now working as a Systems Engineer for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Her research has been in the area of information technology and its impacts on emergency management organizations, and she will share some of her results with us today.

Welcome Ann, and thank you for taking the time to be with us today.


Ann Willis: Thank you, Amy. Good afternoon everyone and thank you for coming. This presentation will describe the results of research that I recently completed on information technology use in State emergency management agencies (EMAs).

While much research has been done in emergency management, there has been little research devoted to State emergency management agencies. There is even less research on the effects of introducing information technology (IT) into these agencies.

The only major research study involving EMAs, and their use of technology, was conducted by Tom Drabek in 1991. Since that time little additional effort has been focused on this topic. The research described in this presentation was undertaken as a preliminary attempt toward filling that void.

The data for this study was collected at four State emergency management agencies: Maryland, Virginia, Iowa and Pennsylvania during 1999. Over ninety-five emergency managers in the four states were interviewed.

Participants were asked to describe their jobs and the changes technology use has caused to their work. Individuals from all levels and disciplines within an agency were interviewed to obtain the broadest picture possible of technology use in an organization.

All agencies have made significant investments in information technology. They have provided each employee with a computer and developed internal communications networks to connect those computers.

Most agencies have also to some extent automated their emergency operations centers. Some agencies have developed communications networks between their operations centers and their counties.

Despite all of the progress the agencies have made, there is a sense that they are today where private industry was ten or fifteen years ago. From the data collected, eight factors were found to limit the results achieved from IT.

Eight Limiting Factors of IT

1) Insufficient IT management resources. Agencies have not put the human resources in place to support the IT infrastructure. They are typically trying to run extensive computer networks and support users with an IT staff of one or two people.

2) Insufficient emphasis on IT training and education. Agencies have not put the resources into training their employees to use the technology available to them. In many cases employees did not feel they had the time available to attend training, even when the opportunity was provided.

3) Insufficient awareness of the potential IT represents. Senior managers still view computers as word processors and electronic messaging systems. They do not see the strategic potential of IT. They have not made the fundamental changes required to align IT to the emergency management mission.

4) Insufficient system integration. IT has been implemented in a piecemeal manner without integration. Although the agencies have networks that allow file sharing and communication, this capability has not been fully exploited. Data in the EOC is stored separately from data in the remainder of the agency. Often the systems are separate, and in some cases incompatible technologies.

5) Insufficient information management. The networks, hardware and software exist; but the data that moves through that infrastructure is not managed. It is left up to individuals to collect, manage, archive and distribute their own data in whatever format they chose. Where actual databases exist, there is often no one tasked to maintain the data.

6) Insufficient system-wide connectivity. Often connectivity to the counties, to other state agencies, and to the field, does not exist. Fax and phone are the predominant means of communication during an emergency. Additionally, no reliable means exists to exchange information across state lines other than picking up the phone.

7) Insufficient documentation of key processes. Management faces the issue of needing to know the results they want from a given technology before implementing it. They must understand the information required to accomplish their mission, where that data comes from, and when it is needed. They must look at their processes and redefine the tasks to streamline their operations and eliminate redundant and unnecessary activities.

8) Reliance on "found money." The majority of the information technology infrastructure in place now was purchased through the use of federal funding, in most cases, disaster funding. While this allows agencies to purchase technology hey could not afford otherwise, this method of funding is not reliable. Agencies need to begin justifying the maintenance and replacement of their equipment in their agency budget proposals.

The eight factors just discussed have been generalized from the research data and are hypothesized to represent significant barriers to the effective use of technology in state emergency management agencies.

The issue is not so much that agencies do not want to change, but that they do not have any incentive to change. All of the agencies in this study were fully capable of carrying out the full range of activities associated with emergency management. It is difficult to convince them to incur the costs and discomfort of fundamentally restructuring their organizations when they see themselves as outstanding performers and highly effective.

The results presented here reflect the particular experiences of four state-level emergency management agencies with information technology. The sample size is small, so it is quite possible that the results do not accurately describe all State emergency management agencies in the United States. It is clear that more research is required in order to further refine and test the theory presented.

That concludes the presentation. Amy, please describe the Q&A procedure.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ann. Audience please enter a question mark (?) to indicate you wish to be recognized, go ahead and compose your comment or question, but wait for recognition before hitting the Enter key or clicking on Send. We now invite your questions/comments.


David Crews: Did any of the States have Web sites to support Mitigation, Response and Recovery?

Ann Willis: All four states had Web sites.


Ann Willis: Amy, I believe you have provided the links, correct?

Amy Sebring: Yes, links are on our background page, David.


Amy Sebring: Ann, did you look at them during your research?

Ann Willis: Yes, I did. In fact I check them regularly still.


Amy Sebring: Can you comment generally about how they are being used?


David Crews: I meant, were the Web sites being used in Operations, not just info? All 50 states have Web sites for EM.

Ann Willis: For the most part they provide basic information on programs. In some cases agencies put contact information there also. Virginia uses theirs for on-line course registration too.

Amy Sebring: I think that answers your question, David.


William Radcliff: What type of solutions or suggestions did your research find related to integration of IT into Emergency Management?

Ann Willis: One possibility is to use more Web-based applications.


William Radcliff: Did you find that these states were using any of the commercially available EM software?

Ann Willis: The business-to-business applications show some promise for connecting the states to the counties. Most agencies are using commercial software. Specifically in this study Gem InfoBook was used by all agencies except Iowa which uses EM2000.


Kevin Farrell: Ann, I agree that it is difficult for an agency to change when they see themselves as effective or outstanding performers. Have you seen an agency successful in changing itself in spite of this roadblock?

Ann Willis: Iowa is making great strides in this area. Maryland was working on re-engineering their processes, but dropped their efforts to accomplish their move to a new site.


Rick Tobin: Did you get a sense of the impact of Y2K planning on the use of IT in emergency management? Did it improve or detract from the use of technological solutions, in your opinion?

Ann Willis: I think it made agencies realize how important standards are. I think having to perform an audit really opened their eyes to all of the various applications they had on their computers. It brought home the point that they might want to come up with a standard set of software.


Ed Burke: Do you see any evidence of FEMA leadership to develop a model for state usage?

Ann Willis: No, I did not. The closest thing to that would be NEMIS but NEMIS was built to FEMA's specs not the state's. FEMA has its own technology problems and has not focused much on leading state IT implementation. Also, it is not clear that the states would even follow any FEMA technology leadership.


Anna Orbe: I have a comment. At my agency we have recently developed an IT division rather than a scattered few IT people. We extensively use the web to disseminate information, and by allowing our staff to be involved in this process, have seen much less resistance. Our biggest problem is the "Found Money" issue. But we are hoping that now that we have an IT division and people are starting to see the value of IT, that we will begin to receive some money from the budget. We would be happy to speak to anyone regarding our solutions.

Ann Willis: That is a good point. Both Maryland and Pennsylvania have divisions responsible for IT.


Anna Orbe: Has that helped? Versus the others?

Ann Willis: Somewhat, but there is still the issue of assigning adequate resources to support the technology. Also your technology staff have to maintain their skills and have access to training and information on new technology. There also must be a partnership between management and the IT staff. The IT staff can not successfully implement technology on their own.


David Crews: FEMA is starting to make more use of Intranets and I have seen some successful use of the Internet by local jurisdictions in response and recovery. (I worked 2 disasters in Iowa in the past 18 months year). I have been using my Web site and integrating it with FEMA Intranets/and the Internet for response at FEMA Disaster Field Offices for two years. I use MS Front Page as my publisher and have been refining my response pages with each disaster. I work in Information and Planning (ESF-5).

Ann Willis: Iowa is one of the states in this study, alone with Pennsylvania that have built Intranets to connect themselves with their counties. Having this capability in place has greatly improved communications during disasters. So, I agree with your point, David.


Steve Charvat: Ann, are you now able to extrapolate your results from these 4 states nationally to every state? How were these states chosen for sampling purposes?

Ann Willis: The answer to your question is long. But briefly I originally chose to focus on the Delmarva area.

Steve Charvat: Delmarva = DEleware, MAryland, VirginiA.

Ann Willis: Iowa was added in attempt to generalize the results outside of the east coast.

Amy Sebring: She previously stated she could not extrapolate, Steve, but it jives with my experience in TX.


Kathie Grant: I have looked at numerous state EM sites, they seem to not grasp the data exchange capability let alone the educational capability of the whole IT medium, do you agree? We will try to put a system in place for a large event planned this summer that would share information on status of communities and resources.

Ann Willis: That is a true statement. I found that data sharing is very rudimentary.


Tom Mottl: GDIN is striving to provide mechanisms and processes that can make a wide variety of high tech IT resources available to the EM professional. Is this really relevant to the EM professional at the state level?

Ann Willis: Yes, it is. One of the implications of this research for GDIN is that the infrastructure exists to connect up. But just because you connect the pipes does not mean that useful information will flow through them. Agreements are needed on what data is to be shared and how this will occur. Standards are needed, protocols must be in place and most importantly, data must be maintained. Without reliable and useful information there is no point in connecting the pipes.


Gunner Nole: Why do you suppose Senior Executives continually overlook or underestimate the importance of user training?

Ann Willis: All executives admitted to overlooking training in the past. All executives said that training is now a priority and that without training they would not achieve the full benefits from their technology investment. But there is never a good time for training. There is always something more important (like meetings) that gets in the way. Also the training available is usually from the outside, provided and based on generic Microsoft office stuff. The cost of on-the-job or customized training is too steep for most agencies. So managers are left with few choices. This is one area where EMI could help out.

Final Question:

Amy Sebring: Last question, Ann. Do you think it makes a difference to have a champion? Someone who is knowledgeable and enthused? Did you see any examples?

Ann Willis: Amy, I have a whole chapter in the dissertation about champions. What I found in general is that champions must come from the senior management team to be effective. Division chiefs tend to focus on their own division, not agency-wide needs. It takes someone high up in the organization to effectively make the changes required to implement technology.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much for being with us today, Ann, and best of luck in your new job. Can you stand by a little longer after we take care of some business?

Ann Willis: Sure.


Amy Sebring: We can have some further discussion. Great. Avagene, can you tell us what's coming up, please?

Avagene Moore: Thanks, Amy. Ann, congratulations on your Ph.D. and we appreciate your presentation today.

Coming up the first week of May, the Virtual Classroom presents "USGS Information: Before, During, and After a Disaster." Speakers for the Wednesday May 3, 12:00 Noon EDT session are Tim Cohn, Science Advisor for Hazards, and Kathleen K. Gohn, Public Affairs Specialist.

As a sidebar, if you are an early-riser, join us in the Virtual Forum tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM EDT (yes, that is early!) for a Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) Workshop. The GDIN is meeting this week in Ankara, Turkey. The EIIP is assisting with an experimental workshop to help share and network any and all who have an interest in a global network for disaster-related business. We believe this is important and hope you will want to share in another pioneer effort to communicate globally.

From the discussion today, I think those of us who see the need and value of IT have to be supportive and vocal about the need and potential. We hope to have people online from around the world. If all goes well, and the Ankara connection holds, the GDIN folks will be able to view Virtual Forum participants and interact via a laptop screen and LCD projector. A primary purpose of the Virtual Forum involvement is to provide connectivity between the workshop participants in Ankara, and others in remote locations.

Amy Sebring: Ava, in interest of time, further info is available by clicking on the GDIN 2000 link under Quick Picks on our home page. We are not sure it is going to work! But we shall see. Thank you, Ava. Thanks to all our participants today and the good questions. We will adjourn the session for now, but you are welcome to remain for open discussion. You no longer need to use question marks.