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Criswell Brings a New Perspective as FEMA Administrator

Deanne Criswell was recently confirmed as administrator at FEMA and brings a unique level of experience to the agency during a critical time when it’s being asked to do more in an increasingly challenging environment.

New FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell at the National Response Coordination Center.
Deanne Criswell was confirmed as FEMA administrator in April. She previously was commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department from 2019 to 2021, and served for 21 years as a firefighter and deputy fire chief as a member of the Colorado Air National Guard.

Emergency Management talked to Criswell about her historic appointment as the first woman to head FEMA.

Talk about your vision for the agency and goals for the job.

Let me start with the fact that my background of having served at the local level both in a small jurisdiction as well as in a large metro area, my time in the Air National Guard and my previous time with FEMA supporting state and locals responding to disasters gives me a unique perspective. The last couple of years that I spent in New York City really help to remind me about the challenges that state and local jurisdictions face every day just managing their own emergency management programs, let alone their ability to respond to and recover from disasters.

I also know the struggles that you can face when you’re trying to maneuver through a federal bureaucracy, and so my hope is that this perspective that I bring to the role of administrator is going to help me keep that at the forefront, as well as the focus on our state and local and tribal partners in everything that we’re doing.

My overarching vision for the agency is not any different from the vision you’ve heard in the past, which is really to be a prepared and resilient nation, and I think we have a lot of options for how we can approach that.

When I came in here I set forth very broad goals for the agency, and the first of those was to take care of our workforce. Our people are first, they have been serving multiple disasters for several years now going back to [hurricanes] Harvey, Irma and Maria, but maybe even before that.

Our National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) has been activated for the last 17ish months in support of COVID-19, and emergency managers across the nation are continually being asked to solve problems that weren’t necessarily within their scope before. The beauty of the emergency management field is that we are often asked to solve problems that nobody else can solve or wants to solve, but it’s taken a toll on our workforce, so I really want to give them the tools and resources they need to do their jobs well.

At the same time, there was also a recent study that came out from RAN that talked about the culture within the workplace, and I want to tackle that head on and make sure our employees have a safe and welcoming place that gives them the opportunity to be creative and innovative, and continue to provide the exceptional level of service that we need to provide to our customers.

The second goal that I brought was about multiple disasters and really readying the disaster response enterprise. That goes from here at FEMA and making sure that our teams are getting the rest that they need so they can reset and get ready for the season but also as well continue to work with our partners, it’s an emergency management system or it’s a disaster response enterprise and that peered approach. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are working with our partners and that we are all ready to respond to whatever that next challenge might be.

The third piece that I brought forward to everyone here is building a more resilient society. I think we have such an opportunity to create generational investments in our mitigation work so we can have really transformational resilience projects for the future.

We have this incredible opportunity but also responsibility to start to build recovery for the threats we’re going to face in the future, rather than always focus on the historical risk that we faced. One of the biggest things I want to be able to accomplish here is how do we begin to make deliberate investments to reduce the impact as we continue to see more disasters, stronger, more severe, more rapidly developing — our focus should be reducing impact as much as possible, since we're not going to be able to stop what is happening.

And then the last one is really about equity. We’ve done a lot of great work here in execution of our COVID-19 support in the initial days, as well as on the vaccination campaign. I saw firsthand while I was in New York City the disproportional impact of COVID-19 on our brown and Black communities across New York City, but I’ve also seen that from all of the natural hazards that I’ve worked as well. We continue to see those communities that need the most help get hit the hardest and have the hardest time asking for the help they need.

I want to make sure we’re delivering our programs in an equitable way and that we’ve taken the lessons that we’ve learned from COVID-19 in using data that we’ve not necessarily used as proactively as we could have during this effort, and really start to embed that into the way we deliver all of our programs to support disaster survivors.

You mentioned COVID-19 and the ability of emergency managers to respond to a multitude of hazards. Talk about FEMA’s role in vaccine distribution.

I think that FEMA has done some amazing things in the vaccine distribution realm. Very broadly, we’ve done a couple of things. We have provided support to vaccine centers that had been set up by state and local jurisdictions, and we've really taken the lead from the states in understanding what they thought their greatest needs were in order for us to deliver assistance.

The second thing we did was to actually set up federally run community vaccination centers, and we did that in a multitude of states. They were set up for eight weeks at a time, working with our state and local partners. That one was particularly important as far as meeting our equity goal. We used our social vulnerability data to work with our state and local partners to help identify the communities that needed these the most and ensure that we stood up these vaccine centers in these areas.

As the first woman appointed as administrator you must feel a great sense of pride, but does that come with higher expectations?

I’ve spent my whole life, most of my professional career, working in emergency management or as a first responder. Along the way, we’ve continued to help diversify and grow the emergency management profession, and I do take a great sense of pride being the first woman nominated and confirmed for this position, but we have more to do in creating a more diverse emergency management workforce across the nation.

There are some great groups out there that are starting to help with this, and FEMA and me in this new role can really help to deliver on that message and drive the entire emergency management community to be more proactive in creating an emergency management workforce that represents the communities we serve.

Talk about why having diversity in the emergency management field is important in relation to serving various communities.

It goes to the conversation around delivering our programs more equitably. If we’re delivering programs with a narrow lens of the type of populations that are impacted, then we’re not going to have the ability to be creative and innovative in how we reach these communities that traditionally have been underserved. Having that diverse lens really helps as we’re developing policies and updating our plans, and we’re putting courses of action in place to reach these communities. You have to have that diversity that looks at the nation writ large and represents them so we can understand better what their needs are.

Could you talk a bit about the role of FEMA in hurricane preparedness as it relates to the environment we’re in with the pandemic?

It’s a concern as we go into our second hurricane season amid an ongoing pandemic that we want to make sure that we are continuing to protect the public health during all of our response and recovery operations, whether that is where FEMA is supporting or just providing guidance to our state and locals as they’re supporting response and recovery operations.

One of the things that FEMA did last year was pandemic operational guidance to prepare communities for hurricane season, and we just released the 2021 version of that. We took a lot of the lessons learned from last year, a lot of experience we gained from last year, and we put in more actionable guidance, resources that are available so communities could tailor their preparedness efforts to meet their unique needs.

The other thing that we did going into this is we updated it to be an all-hazards approach, including those hurricanes as well as wildfires, as well as all hazards in general, whereas last year it was really focused on hurricane response. I think this has really helped jurisdictions as they put together their response plans going into this season.

The biggest part of this is we don’t want to write prescriptive requirements for state and locals. What this guidance does is gives them the opportunity to scale their response and tailor it to their unique needs. For example being able to use noncongregational sheltering for evacuation operations or post-storm sheltering is something we’re going to carry forward, so we’re giving locals and states tools so they can understand how they can best prepare for this season.

As you look forward, what’s the biggest disaster you fear? What keeps you up at night that could happen on your watch?

What keeps me up at night is the disaster I haven’t thought of yet. It’s really the novel emergency that we haven’t had to respond to. I think back to the early days of COVID-19, and especially where I was in New York City going through it as the epicenter was evolving. We can adjust to the scale of these different disasters, but when it comes to novel emergencies we have to be able to think differently, think creatively to approach these problems. We can’t use a typical approach. There’s always that learning curve in trying to build your response to novel events that can cause you some struggles in the beginning and slow down the response.

Does FEMA have enough staffing to respond to all the missions you’ve been tasked with responding to?

FEMA has historically responded to multiple events at the same time, and our staff has been working relentlessly since the Harvey-Irma-Maria hurricane season, but our NRCC has been activated throughout the COVID-19 response. We are taking proactive measures to make sure they are rested and reset to get ready for this hurricane season, but when it comes to responding to multiple disasters our staff is good at that, that’s what we do. We manage multiple complex incidents at the same time so we can take care of the needs of states and locals.