FEMA weighs outfitting housing inspectors with smart phones

Move would allow inspectors to carry fewer pieces of equipment and work more efficiently.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering giving inspectors smart phones to make it easier to collect data on homes damaged by natural disasters.

According to a request for information posted on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site last month, FEMA is seeking information on how BlackBerrys and other smart phones could improve the residential inspection process. Mark Millican, deputy branch chief of FEMA's National Processing Service Center Operations, said the agency checks hundreds of thousands of homes annually, depending on the types of natural disasters that have occurred.

Inspectors currently carry laptop computers and separate cameras to verify damage. "Technology has evolved quite a lot since the implementation of the technology we're currently using," Millican said. "We see the advantage of potentially using BlackBerrys or similar devices and consolidating the current technologies we use today."

According to the request for information, inspectors check damaged residences room by room, recording the types of repairs needed and the amount of damage. Any smart phone that inspectors use must be compatible with FEMA's existing information management system, which organizes information in XML data tables. Several models of smart phones are capable of handling spreadsheets and other data applications that use XML.

FEMA also is interested in smart phones' Global Positioning System navigation feature, mapping applications and ability to stamp photos with a real-time date and location.

"Our inspectors typically are going into areas they're not familiar with and navigation can create an efficiency that will allow them to move between properties faster, inspect faster, provide better service and reduce the turnaround time between properties," Millican said. "We currently don't have that, frankly."

The Federal Business Opportunities notice indicates FEMA is considering leveraging commercial technologies rather than building something from scratch, according to Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer and senior vice president at the research and consulting firm FedSources. This fits with a growing trend toward considering commercial options, he noted. President Obama, for example, is the first president to keep his own smart phone, a special-issue BlackBerry from the National Security Agency.

"This administration has been more aggressive in exploring advanced technologies like the Web 2.0" and smart phones, Bjorklund said. "Kudos to the government for saying we've got readily available technologies like our smart phones, maybe we could use this."

Millican said FEMA has not yet ruled out building its own device, but first wants to fully understand what already is available in the marketplace. "We're simply collecting information, getting some knowledge on the technology out there," he said. "We want better information before taking further steps."