New York City

As the city prepares for more frequent emergencies, a new emphasis on tech

November 26, 2019 Mary Frost
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New York City’s emergencies are becoming more frequent and more complex than they were in the past, says the woman in charge of handling them — and it’s not going to get any easier. Her solution? Prioritizing technology.

Disasters are multiplying because of “climate change, social and economic inequity, aging infrastructure, reliance on technology, cyber threats and domestic terrorism,” said Deanne Criswell, commissioner of the city’s Emergency Management department, at the ISC East security conference on Nov. 20.

Criswell, appointed to lead the agency in June by Mayor Bill de Blasio, laid out her plans to use technology to help first responders make decisions when all hell breaks loose.

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“When you’re dealing with a novel threat or an emerging threat, there is no checklist,” she said. “You have to figure out how to do things and problem solve on the fly. You have to get comfortable with risk and making decisions without perfect information.”

Criswell’s vision is to make Emergency Management, headquartered in Downtown Brooklyn, “the hub for data sharing, trend analysis and historical data during emergencies,” she said. While NYPD, FDNY and other agencies each have their own pieces of information during an emergency, a common platform will help them gain the insight to make better decisions, she said.

The biggest challenge during the first few days after a major incident, “where it is truly chaotic,” is trying to get a good understanding of what’s happening, Criswell said. “The role of Emergency Management is to bring all relevant information together, and to have shared situational understanding.”

One stumbling block has been the lack of trust in sharing data between agencies, she said. “We need agency data sets to be shared in a distinct platform designed for multi-agency use.”

Getting a bird’s eye view

One way of increasing situational awareness is through the use of technology like drones and geographic information systems, Criswell said.

NYPD and FDNY already use drones to enhance their incident monitoring and response capabilities. But they can be useful throughout the disaster cycle. For example, immediately following a storm, drone data can be overlaid with pre-storm maps to determine storm impacts, she said.

Emergency Management is working with mapping software company Esri to develop a drone-mapping application to help responders “visualize and map out areas affected by an incident and adjust mapping in real time, as building statuses change,” Criswell said. Drones would allow responders to see if roads are flooded or if infrastructure is intact.

Deanne Criswell, commissioner of NYC Emergency Management. Photo: NYCEM
Deanne Criswell, commissioner of NYC Emergency Management. Photo: NYCEM

Criswell gave as an example the 2018 steam pipe explosion in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.

“During that incident, we used a drone to stream data to city agencies in the Mobile Command Center. The drone was able to access locations that were not accessible to personnel due to the HAZMAT scene,” she said.

Emergency Management is also bolstering data visualization efforts, using data-driven GIS technology, she said.

“There’s a ton of information out there, but we need to put it in context,” she said.

As another example, she discussed the heat wave that took place in July, soon after she arrived.

“One of our strategies we use was to open up cooling centers, which are spaces in senior centers and community centers,” she said. “In the city there are more than 500 centers used as cooling centers, but what does that data mean? How should we look at that data? By borough? By ZIP code? By block?”

Expressing the data in a meaningful way would help answer whether the people who are most vulnerable in a heat wave have access to these 500 cooling centers.

“To gain more insight, we can take social vulnerability data and overlay it with cooling center geographic data to see if we are providing the right support to the people who are needing it most,” she said.

Community preparedness

The biggest emergency situations affecting Brooklyn are probably storms and heat waves, Criswell said. Then again, “There’s always going to be those novel and emerging threats that we haven’t thought about. That could happen anywhere.”

She stressed the need to develop strong relationships with community groups, businesses and academia. FEMA recently rolled out a new emergency support function, ESF14, which is coordinates between government, nonprofits, and the private sector to enable community recovery.

“Community preparedness … is one of our pillars,” she said. “People should be able to see that our teams are out in the streets helping to prepare our communities. One thing I’ve learned here quickly is that while NYC might be a city of 8.6 million people, it’s really a city of neighborhoods. And those neighborhoods are going to be the best resource for [people] to come together in case of an event.”

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