Deanne Criswell’s career in disaster management almost ended before it began.

Criswell, who in April was sworn in as the first woman to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was looking for a “nontraditional” job when she joined the Colorado Air National Guard to earn money to go back to college and was presented with two options: firefighting or bomb loading. 

The “bomb loaders looked bored … so I decided to give firefighting a try, and I fell in love with it,” she said.

But when she returned from basic training and went to take the test for the Aurora fire department — which was the last in Colorado to hire women, she said — Criswell walked into a room of a thousand people, nearly all of whom were men. She almost left. 

“I sat down at a table of all men, and they kept telling me, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to get on the job, you know, I’ve been trying for three years, I’ve been trying five years,’ just really trying to discourage me,” Criswell said in a recent interview.

“I almost got up and left. Then I decided, no, I’m just gonna stay — what does it hurt, right? To stay and take the test. So I stayed. I took the written test, did the physical agility test; I did the oral boards. And out of a thousand people, I came out Number 11,” she said. 

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Criswell was the sixth woman ever hired by Aurora’s fire department. She stayed for 17 years. Nearly walking out of the test is a story she likes to tell, she said, because it shows that you can’t “let other people mess with your head.”

“Do what you think you want to do and follow your gut. If I would have left, then I already had closed my doors, right? But by staying, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she added. 

What happened was that Criswell went on to head Aurora’s Office of Emergency Management, where she supervised reunification efforts for local Hurricane Katrina evacuees. She advised U.S. military leaders on fire safety during deployments to Qatar, Afghanistan and Iraq. She worked at FEMA during the Obama administration, responding to flooding in North Dakota, hurricanes in South Carolina and fires in Colorado. She joined the private sector. Then, she was the first woman commissioner of New York City Emergency Management, coordinating its COVID-19 response. 

Now at FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security agency that responds to natural and human-caused disasters nationwide like hurricanes, floods and building collapses, Criswell is approaching disaster response through an equity lens, she said. It is a shift meant to address longtime criticism and recent findings from a council, originally formed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that disaster response can exacerbate the racial wealth gap. 

“While it is not the role of FEMA to dismantle a series of systems that cause inequity, it is within the role of FEMA to recognize these inequities (and the disparities caused by them) and ensure that existing or new FEMA programs, policies, and practices do not exacerbate them,” the November 2020 report urged. 

Criswell said one of FEMA’s earliest focuses during her tenure was disaster preparedness outreach to the Latinx community based on input from one of 10 employee-led groups meant to improve workplace diversity, inclusion and equity. In the past, outreach had been “hit or miss,” she said, and FEMA wanted an “intentional campaign” because a “one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always work.” A result was public service announcements conceived specifically for Latinx communities in English and Spanish released a few weeks ago, during Hispanic Heritage Month. 

It is one in a series of steps FEMA is taking to ensure its services are deployed equitably. Others include training its field employees on civil rights law, changing the eligibility requirements for assistance to include applicants who “state the need for shelter but have not been able to leave their damaged dwelling,” and allowing disaster survivors to drop off documentation in person instead of online. 

Last month, FEMA expanded the types of documentation individuals can provide to prove home ownership and occupancy. In the past, the rules prevented Black homeowners in the South who inherited their residences from accessing funds they needed to rebuild after hurricanes and other disasters. 

Criswell points to her very first deployment during her earlier stint with FEMA as “eye opening” in terms of the impact that culturally competent services can have. It was in 2011, and Alabama had experienced a series of devastating tornadoes. Criswell was embedded with FEMA’s housing operation, along with many of the agency’s Latinx leaders. They headed to a community meeting at a Catholic church where many affected Latinx people were expected to gather. Their aim was to provide information about FEMA’s individual assistance program to a community that included undocumented immigrants, many of whom were hesitant to register for help with the federal government due to deportation concerns. She was the only one who did not speak Spanish. 

“It was literally my first experience with FEMA: How do we bring services to the people because everybody has such a unique individual need and circumstance?” Criswell recalled.

“The bureaucracy is hard, right? And we can’t expect everybody to understand how to navigate it — especially those that are more disadvantaged,” she added. 

While FEMA’s financial assistance is generally available to only U.S. citizens, noncitizens are eligible for other assistance, Criswell said, and applicants “don’t need to worry about deportation” if they apply. Noncitizens can also seek financial assistance on behalf of family members, including minor children, who are citizens.

“They all have unique situations and we want to help them understand their situation. And then if they’re not eligible for any of our [assistance], we will connect them with nonprofits and other government organizations,” she said. 

Those who have worked with Criswell cite her ability to navigate the government bureaucracy on multiple levels, assist others in doing so and, in some cases, eliminate layers as one of the strengths she brings to the job. 

Andrew D’Amora, a first deputy commissioner with New York City Emergency Management, worked 18-hour days alongside Criswell in the early months of the COVID-19 crisis. New York City has the country’s largest public hospital network, and the department was coordinating medical response at the hospitals, along with reinforcements from the Defense Department and National Guard. He cited Criswell’s “gamut” of experiences — fire department, military, local and federal disaster response — as critical to understanding how various systems work. 

“She’s really good at cutting through a lot of the nonsense to make stuff happen,” D’Amora said. “She really spearheaded that, was able to cut through all of the bureaucracy and get things moving — if it wasn’t for her, it would’ve got done, but not in that efficient manner.”

Criswell has also shown through her own career, and in her outreach to new recruits in the field, that a path can be charted in an area that in the past, many people “didn’t look at as a career … not just at FEMA but across the spectrum,” said Richard Serino, a former FEMA deputy commissioner who is now at Harvard University’s school of public health.

When Serino was at FEMA, he developed the FEMA Corps program, which recruits 18- to 24-year-olds to serve one year in disaster-impacted communities. Criswell helped run the program in its early years. Serino said last he heard, about 39 percent of Corps graduates remain with FEMA in permanent jobs, exceeding his “wildest dreams.” Now, some of the program’s earliest recruits are in mid-level management positions. 

Serino said he watched Criswell encourage people in the FEMA Corps program to “really look at this as a career” and said she has been on the “forefront of recruiting people and bringing them into the field of emergency management.”

During a recent visit to a fire and rescue training center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Criswell spoke to a group of newly recruited firefighting trainees. Afterward, the chief noted how she encouraged them to “stretch” in terms of thinking about where they can go professionally. 

Criswell told The 19th how her own willingness to take personal risks has paid off. She stayed for the firefighting test, leading to a multi-decade career in fighting fires and other disasters, and moved to different jobs, sometimes sacrificing security or moving outside her comfort zone. 

“If you don’t challenge yourself, and if you don’t take personal risk, you never know what types of opportunities are going to be opened up for you. I obviously would never be in this position if I didn’t take that personal risk back then.”