NYC Emergency Management preparing flood prevention (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM), the city agency tasked with emergency planning, coordination, and response, recently released its 2022-2026 Strategic Plan, laying the groundwork for the department’s goals, both internal and external, for this and the next four years.
The second of its kind, the plan aims to improve the city’s preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities “for any type of incident” by building on the framework outlined in the agency’s 2017-2021 plan and incorporating new lessons learned, strategies, and goals under a new mayor and new emergency management commissioner.
“The threats to New York City are constantly evolving — from climate change to cyber security, to a global pandemic, we must be ready on multiple fronts to keep our city safe,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement announcing the release of the new strategic plan. “New York City Emergency Management's strategic plan lays out how we will prepare for, respond to, and recover from these novel threats to build a safer city for all.”
Adams, a Democrat who took office in January, is a former first-responder himself as a 22-year veteran of the NYPD. Earlier this year, he appointed Zachary Iscol as commissioner of New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM). Iscol has experience in a wide range of emergency situations – including the war in Iraq, Hurricane Sandy, and COVID-19 – and previously served in the U.S. Marines, running the Javits Center as a covid hospital, and as the Executive Director of the Headstrong Project, a non-profit mental health care provider for military veterans.
“New York City is no stranger to disasters,” Iscol says in the introduction of the plan. “In this plan, we outline our goals to foster an agile and scalable emergency management capability that responds to new and worsening threats; prioritizes equity practices; and reaches all New Yorkers – even the hardest to reach – through trusted organizations and communication channels.”
Under a slightly different name, New York City Emergency Management was originally created in 1996, with its roots stemming back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of Civilian Defense established in 1941 with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as its director. The modern version of the office was set up by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani by executive order and later became a full city department via voter referendum.
Giuliani was harshly criticized for headquartering the office’s command center at 7 World Trade Center despite the 1993 bombing in the North Tower just a few years prior. As a result of the September 11, 2001 terror attack, 7 World Trade Center collapsed, hugely impairing the office’s ability to respond.
Today, NYCEM headquarters is in Brooklyn, at 165 Cadman Plaza East.
During emergencies, NYCEM disseminates information using Notify NYC, available by email, text, and phone, a service that became particularly relied upon and frequently used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
NYCEM has responded to more than 90 emergencies over the past five years, and the Emergency Operations Center was activated for 265 days on average over the past three years, and for all 365 days of 2021 as the city continued to battle COVID-19. During the height of the pandemic, NYCEM’s spending increased by 340%, largely supported by federal aid, and its employees worked more than 107,000 additional hours.
Because emergencies are so unpredictable, the new strategic plan’s “specific but broad” language allows for “some degree of flexibility,” said NYCEM Monitoring and Evaluation Program Manager Jimmy Deats in a NYCEM affiliated podcast.
“Our priorities might change over time,” he said. “Reflecting overarching goals as opposed to being overly prescriptive is important.”
When setting its priorities for the years ahead, NYCEM’s Office of Strategic Operations examined national emergency management trends and collected information about the agency’s degree of success in reaching the initial objectives in its 2017 plan. The agency then condensed its findings into six broad categories: preparedness, operations, equity, people, technology, and innovation.
Under preparedness, NYCEM pledges to “optimize citywide preparedness and outreach efforts to ready all New Yorkers for emergencies.” NYCEM plans to create a “citywide integrated preparedness cycle” – constantly planning, training, and implementing emergency plans – to support communication across city agencies and with other partners and the public.
NYCEM relies heavily on other city agencies in all stages of an emergency, and plans to work with them to “incorporate the principle of continuous improvement,” documenting NYCEM’s successes and failures to be better prepared when the next disaster strikes.
NYCEM also depends on community involvement and its community-based organizational partners. The New York City Community Emergency Response Team members are volunteers trained to prepare and respond to emergencies. CERT workers completed 67,434 volunteer hours between 2018-2021, responding to all sorts of emergencies, including natural disasters, power outages, and the COVID-19 pandemic. NYCEM also pledges to inform the communities it serves by promoting emergency preparedness education, sponsoring initiatives like the Ready New York campaign and the Community Emergency Planning Toolkit.
Once an emergency occurs, NYCEM must work with other entities to communicate important information to the public, which, according to the strategic plan, will be adapted to accommodate the specific needs and cultural differences of diverse communities in order to promote trust and ensure that all New Yorkers have actionable information in a crisis.
For “operations” NYCEM is focusing on its performance regarding response, recovery, and mitigation.
Using knowledge gained from large-scale catastrophes like the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Sandy, NYCEM’s plan calls for the creation of a long-term recovery framework that facilitates city agencies in promoting healthier communities, economic growth, and effective governmental leadership.
NYCEM is also prepared to respond to another large-scale crisis – climate change – by implementing mitigation strategies that reduce the effects of environmental disasters, in turn minimizing the need for response and recovery initiatives by managing programs like the Interim Flood Protection Measures Program, which aims to prevent flood damage. NYCEM will also continuously analyze risk data trends in order to anticipate how an emergency could impact a community, the plan says.
“The City’s response posture must be flexible enough to ‘scale up’ for citywide incidents and ‘scale down’ for localized emergencies and impacts,” according to the plan.
The agency will provide information to partners at all stages of the emergency and will connect with new partners to support services, and to improve mitigation strategies and coordinate funding.
Under equity, the plan highlights the importance of diversity and inclusion, and NYCEM pledges “recruiting a more diverse pool of candidates” and “working to make sure emergency response strategies…effectively serve all New York City’s communities,” according to Deats.
The plan acknowledges the city’s social and economic inequalities and establishes a commitment to equitable emergency response for all New Yorkers. That goal can only be reached, Deats said, if the department itself is diverse. NYCEM plans to “create a culture of inclusion” by adopting an equitable hiring model.
“When we have a workforce that reflects the community that we’re serving, that important connection with the community can help us understand the needs and the gaps that we have as we respond and recover from emergencies,” Deats said. “Understanding is key. You’re never going to have that understanding if you are coming as an outsider.”
NYCEM will continuously analyze its preparedness, response, and recovery initiatives to ensure that they are equitable and make changes when necessary, according to the plan.
In the “people” section of the new strategic plan, NYCEM plans to ensure employee satisfaction and retention by incorporating strategies to reduce burnout and promote professional development of staff.
NYCEM recognizes there has been substantial staff burnout as a result of the increase in emergency activations in recent years, particularly the more than two years that the city has been dealing with the covid pandemic, as mentioned above.
NYCEM will improve employee morale by listening to feedback from staff and offering opportunities for career growth, the plan says. In response to the ever-changing emergency landscape, NYCEM will continuously review its organizational structure to ensure readiness for the next catastrophe.
NYCEM launched a staff retention survey that will serve as a “benchmarker” to set employment and retention goals and facilitate the agency’s ability to maintain its staff now and in the future, said NYCEM Deputy Director of Talent and Culture Veronica Gaeger on the podcast.
“I think that was a great exercise in really getting the understanding of everyone across the agency,” she said.
The agency plans to focus on the use of technology and data when making decisions, giving context to decision-makers during emergency situations and presenting clear and informative visualizations.
NYCEM will promote data sharing among its partner agencies to improve response effectiveness, according to the strategic plan. It will also use technology to support its financial and legal operations, enabling better responses as the volume of large-scale incidents rises. NYCEM will also work to establish partnerships in the private sector to evaluate possible areas where technology can be leveraged to improve NYCEM capabilities.
NYCEM vows to promote innovative approaches to expand and improve its disaster responses. This includes expanding NYCEM headquarters through upgrades to its facility and data center to be better prepared for future emergencies.
NYCEM will evaluate telework and virtual operational effectiveness, and will prepare for large-scale emergencies by implementing staffing strategies to increase the amount of trained personnel that can be deployed when needed. NYCEM plans to expand its On-call Emergency Contract Program in order to increase its contracting limits.
And the emergency management department will also create an innovation program to encourage NYCEM staff to envision new solutions when tackling new emergencies. The program will allow for employees to propose ideas to improve NYCEM at all levels, the plan says.