Tech Corps: FEMA and Private Tech Companies Working Together for Disaster Relief

July 1st, 2015

By CHHS Extern Elizabeth Millford

Don’t be surprised if you see Google or Microsoft employees working alongside emergency responders the next time a disaster strikes. On June 17 2015, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hosted a special signing ceremony at their Headquarters in DC, where seven private sector technology companies signed agreements to participate in FEMA’s new emergency management program, Tech Corps. These agreements, in the form of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), establish that the seven companies – Cisco Systems, Google, Humanity Road, Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, Intel, Joint Communication Task Force, and Microsoft – will provide volunteer technology support during nationally-declared disasters. As modern technological abilities have advanced, it has become increasingly clear that technology has the potential to play a major role in emergency response programs.

The seven tech companies named above now have an official role in national disaster and emergency relief. Once the President declares a major disaster or emergency, the MOUs activate, and the tech companies will assume their role(s) in the response. Primarily, their efforts will focus on establishing and maintaining internet and phone networks to be used by disaster victims as well as emergency support services. They can also potentially assist by providing navigation and mapping systems to assist in rescue and recovery efforts.

FEMA initially launched a pilot program for Tech Corps in 2014 in response to more than a decade of advocacy from Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or.). Senator Wyden proposed this system following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the legislation authorizing such a program appeared in the same 2002 bill that created the Department of Homeland Security, but the Senator fought FEMA for years to actually get it started. The Senator’s system followed the proposal of entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej, who organized volunteers in New York City after the 2001 attack, and focused on the benefits of combining the technology industry with disaster relief efforts.

During the 2014 pilot period, FEMA asked for public feedback from emergency managers and disaster relief companies. The Agency asked for input on a wide range of topics – what the program should be called, what trainings should be recommended for participants, and exactly how the group should operate. The pilot program was successful, and eventually led to the June 17th signing ceremony.

After the ceremony, Senator Wyden announced his joy that the program is finally being initiated, and commented on how much this program has the potential to change the way we respond to national disasters:

“Information technology is often critical to saving lives, and this program ensures that red tape won’t stand in the way of volunteer experts who can stand up temporary cell networks and Wi-Fi solutions that are so important in disaster areas. I’m hopeful today’s partners are the first of many to sign up to work hand-in-hand with emergency responders to help craft more resilient and effective responses to future disasters.”

Some of the companies who have just signed on to the program have already been providing support during national disasters. Intel, for example, provided support during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and during the earthquakes in Nepal and Haiti. The volunteers assisted by setting up temporary Wi-Fi networks and by vising shelters and acting as IT liaisons.

The ultimate goal of this program is to have as many companies as possible join in to provide support on a nationally-recognized scale. Though the program is technologically-based, other companies could help as well; each MOU is specifically tailored to describe the ways each company can provide support. As Senator Wyden said, private sector companies need to be able to provide support without having to fight against the government; this program allows national cooperation between private and public sector emergency support services.

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