Live from ISC East: NYC’s Emergency Management Head Eyes Future of Disaster Recovery

New York – Leading emergency management into the future will require a combination of innovation, readiness and a desire to embrace new technologies to enhance preparedness, response and recovery.

Deanne Criswell, commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department, laid out this vision for leading the 330,000 emergency management employees that serve New York’s 6.8 million residents at ISC East this month. Criswell detailed the department’s efforts to tackle new and emerging threats with a combination of technology and data-driven decision making in a presentation titled Leveraging Technology to Improve Decision Making: A New Direction in Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness.

“Every facet of our work is on serving New Yorkers on their worst day and in their darkest hour,” said Criswell. “We are developing more than an emergency management department, but a system to be prepared to respond and recover, and to be ready for the next disaster.”

Criswell outlined the need for public-private partnerships, which she called critical to building connections within communities, government and the non-profit sector. Reducing dependency on system-based mitigation and working with various communities to develop readiness is a key goal for her team.

But Criswell’s remarks focused mostly on the need to look to technology and data to inform planning and action in an emergency. She outlined her philosophy of approaching data in three phases of questions in order to gather information and make decisions: What? So what? Now what?

“There’s a ton of information out there,” said Criswell. “But we need to put it in context. For example, we know as a city we have 500 possible cooling centers. But what does that mean? We need to express that data in a meaningful way. Do vulnerable people have access to those cooling centers? With maps, we can tell a complete story. We can visualize where they are and see if those who need them can access them.”

Criswell also mentioned the use of drone technology for data collection to enhance disaster response logistics.

“They can help us understand pre-disaster areas and compare that for use post-storm,” she explained. “They can allow us to see roadways in real time and can help with recovery by conducting debris and damage assessments.”

Criswell also mentioned New York’s Emergency Management Department has several trained and licensed drone operators and are planning to train more.

In an interview with ISC News following her address, Criswell emphasized that technology that drives new and more efficient ways to communicate is one of her top goals for the department.

“Those first few hours and days after an event, trying to get an understanding of the situation is really hard,” she told ISC News Editor-in-Chief D.J. Murphy. “You have downed communication, you have power outages, you have some using back-up generators. If you at least have something powering a platform that people can feed information into so they have a better idea, that’s going to be really important. With limited resources, we need to prioritize. The best way to prioritize is to have information.”

While technology offers many enhancements to emergency management, Criswell also noted there are challenges in that products are not always able to offer the flexibility necessary when dealing with such a large area, like the one she oversees.

“There’s a lot of technology out there and that’s the biggest struggle. Every jurisdiction is different. We need flexibility in some software so that it can meet needs in certain jurisdictions.”

Article Written by Joan Goodchild | View all articles by Joan Goodchild