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FEMA Eyes New Cloud Priorities to Boost Readiness, Resilience

FEMA CIO Charlie Armstrong says his agency is leveraging multiple cloud services to increase operational readiness, modernize its infrastructure and improve disaster response.

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FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance team member Andrea Floyd helps a 79-year-old resident register for disaster assistance at the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance team member Andrea Floyd helps a 79-year-old resident register for disaster assistance at the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Photo Credit: K.C. Wilsey/FEMA

As part of its IT transformation strategy, the agency is emphasizing cloud migration in 2024. Some of the agency’s key objectives are to use cloud services to enhance disaster response capabilities, increase resiliency of its operational systems and boost response time.

Charlie Armstrong, who became CIO at FEMA in November 2022, discusses more on the agency’s new cloud and data strategies, plus how he is envisioning technology supporting cybersecurity, resiliency and customer experience.

What are some of your tech priorities over the coming year?

Armstrong: Maintaining a focus on customers, partners and survivors in every aspect of our operations is critical to how we deliver our mission. To help deliver on this promise, my office is focused on enhancing the efficiency of enterprise IT by:

  • Investing in emerging technologies, such as cloud computing and AI, to modernize our infrastructure and systems.
  • Developing the IT workforce such as providing training and resources to enhance skills and capabilities.
  • Focusing on data-driven decision-making as well as developing agile, customer-centric delivery models to better meet the needs of FEMA’s workforce and the survivors we serve.
  • Building a digital customer experience team to improve the experience for the survivor.

As a service organization, our office is also dedicated to equipping FEMA with the enabling capabilities and technologies necessary to build and sustain operational readiness for the agency.

As the FEMA administrator has targeted 2024 to be a “Year of Resilience,” I am working to strengthen partnerships and collaboration with leaders across the agency, the federal government and the state, local, territorial and tribal nations. This collaborative approach will enable us to provide the necessary IT services efficiently and effectively, ensuring the readiness of our workforce and the resilience of our operations.

These efforts not only ensure FEMA’s technology supports emergency operations, but also our steady state and readiness posture to make our enterprise IT more efficient across all facets of emergency management —enabling our mission and communities to recover more quickly from disasters.

What role does cloud play in FEMA’s IT modernization efforts?

Armstrong: When we talk about cloud services, we have to understand the basic value that cloud brings to the mission and core values of compassion, fairness, integrity and respect. Our main goal this year is to leverage cloud services to scale FEMA’s disaster response capabilities and build greater resilience through cybersecurity and accessibility, enhancing the stability of services provided to survivors. We have several cloud initiatives underway, with our main focus on two workstreams: re-hosting and re-platforming.

  • Re-hosting involves the “lift and shift” of our business applications from legacy data centers into the FEMA cloud environment. The goal is to retain the same functionality with little to no modifications.
  • Re-platforming focuses on migrating existing applications from legacy platforms to more modern, cloud-based platforms, modifying specific aspects of the application to function optimally in a cloud environment (i.e., cloud native).

Our priority for the cloud re-hosting effort is to achieve a 95% migration of legacy system assets to the new cloud environment by end of fiscal year 2024.

An additional cloud initiative that we have been working on is to establish the FEMA Enterprise Cloud (FEC). The FEC service provides program offices access to cloud computing resources quickly and securely. It also enables coordination between multiple cloud environments that doesn’t require extensive management or interaction with cloud service providers (CSPs). This has allowed users to allocate resources quickly and offer a level of flexibility and agility in deploying services.

A highlight about this cloud strategy is our new focus on security by design. The methodology integrates security control checks upfront in the systems engineering lifecycle (SELC) process. This means security is considered throughout the entire product development lifecycle, from initial planning and design to testing and deployment.

Migrating our systems to a multi-cloud environment and leveraging cloud services will bolster the resilience of our systems and ensure the stability of services provided to our workforce and survivors.

How is FEMA transforming its data strategy?

Armstrong: Data is critical for us. Within FEMA and our partners, data informs decisions that impact the lives of millions of people before, during and after disasters. FEMA’s data strategy is a collaborative effort that galvanizes attention so we work together to better leverage data as a strategic asset.

We see how important data and good data stewardship are to successfully migrating to the cloud and smartly enabling artificial intelligence. Thinking this way creates an environment where we work hand-in-hand with our programs, analysts and partners to help people better manage their data, effectively govern the systems that carry it and care for the resources entrusted to us.

On the topic of AI, FEMA is launching a generative AI pilot. What is the goal of this pilot?

Armstrong: FEMA’s generative AI pilot, called Planning Assistant for Resilient Communities (PARC), supports FEMA’s mission in conducting response, recovery and mitigation of disaster before they occur. Hazard mitigation saves lives and results in less complex disaster recovery.

PARC focuses on streamlining the hazard mitigation planning process using generative AI so that communities can focus on increasing the quality and impact of their plan through public engagement and buy-in on mitigation strategies.

Communities provide vital insights on the best ways to protect their cities and towns from disasters. This pilot could help these communities to better prepare for hazards they face and also help them access grant funding for mitigation efforts that boost resilience.

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