FEMA shows smartphone savvy

Thursday - 7/22/2010, 9:31am EDT

Richard Serino, Deputy Administrator, FEMA

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, getting help from FEMA was a sorepoint for many. It was often difficult for disaster victims to even be sure they were on a list somewhere.

Add to that frustration being required to go through essentially the same process over and over again for state and local aid and across federal agencies including the Small Business Administration and HUD.

Now, with one click of a smartphone button, all that changes. A new feature has been added to the m.fema.gov mobile platform to make it easier for disaster survivors to apply for federal aid from FEMA after Presidential declared disasters.

Richard Serino is the Deputy Administrator of FEMA told Federal News Radio, the goal behind the change is to provide a site for victims to go to even during the disaster.

"A lot of times people are out of their homes and they may not have access to a computer, they may not have access to a regular phone that people are used to, and we're also finding that more and more people have smartphones and so we were able to launch this new feature for our mobile site" which allows disaster survivors to register for assistance directly from their BlackBerry, iPhone, Windows Mobile device or any smartphone.

While Serino said "we know that technology isn't foolproof" he said FEMA has found that over the years, more people are getting smartphones and in turn companies are strengthening their capabilities. As an example, he said Haiti's earthquake proved the current wireless networks are very resiliant. There might not be voice calls during disassters, but data is available, making smartphones an effective way to keep in contact.

The major difference between the mobile site and the internet version, said Serino, is there aren't many "extra things" on the mobile. "During a disaster," he said, people don't "necessarily need to see what our organizational chart is, but they certainly need to find out what the help is."

Serino explained that when users apply for disaster assistance, FEMA will "automatically...apply for some other federal agencies for help like the Small Business Administration or HUD."

The user starts at m.fema.gov, clicks on Apply Online for FEMA Assistance" and is redirected to disasterassistance.gov. That site, launched in 2008, was set up to be a one-stop shop to integrate more than 50 forms of assistance from 17 separate federal agencies, including FEMA, as well as states, local governments, and voluntary agencies.