ORLANDO, Fla. – The voices communicating the urgency of an incoming hurricane and making essential decisions for their community in the aftermath are becoming more diverse. However, there is still a long way to go.
This week at the 2022 National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Florida, a packed conference room listened to a panel of leaders within the emergency management industry nationwide, and Florida’s top emergency management official described the progress and hurdles to creating a more diverse emergency response field.
National statistics from DataUSA.gov show only about 11.7% of emergency management directors are persons of color. More than 62% of emergency management directors are male, and 71% are white.
For the first time, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a woman. Deanne Criswell became the 12th FEMA administrator in April 2021. Criswell is the first woman to hold the Senate-confirmed position, however, Nancy Ward also led the agency during the early months of the Obama administration as acting administrator.
"We have a long way to go," Criswell told FOX Weather. "We've increased the diversity in our senior leadership team as far as gender diversity, but we still have a long way to go with cultural diversity. But we are working on that."
When FEMA responds to an emergency, it has a local hire program that hires people from the community directly affected.
"It's giving back to the community, and we're investing in that community, but also they understand their community, they understand their needs," Criswell said. "They can help us make sure that we're delivering our services in a way that meets the needs of those communities."
Emergency management consultant Eve Rainey has more than 30 years of field experience and serves as the executive director of the Florida Emergency Preparedness Association.
"That took a long time to get there," Rainey said of the first female FEMA Administrator. "Now, we are at the table. Now, we're here."
After not finding anything else out there, Brittany Perkins Castillo, CEO of emergency management contractor AshBritt, started a website and the WTFem group for women in emergency management, public works and waste management. The group offers mentorship, training and other resources to help underrepresented groups in emergency management.
Rainey also agreed with others on the panel that the emergency response industry has progressed.
"I was very fortunate to be in the business as the business evolved," Rainey said. "When I got in, there was also a bit of a chasm between everyone being ex-military and predominantly male, and white male, and then folks coming out of college that fell into emergency management or found emergency management."
Panelists from Massachusetts, Virginia and Florida spoke about what they are doing within their departments or private companies to encourage a more diverse emergency response workforce.
Virginia Department of Emergency Management Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Sable K. Nelson Dyer said improving emergency response is about using your own lived experiences to serve a community, whatever your background might be.
"It's really important for us that we develop a situation where we are calling people in instead of calling people out, and I think that is important for us to understand that we just have our own way."
According to Data USA, female emergency management directors make $15,000 less on average than their male counterparts. The panelists said this could lead to losing amazing women who could benefit a municipality or agency.
Dawn Brantley, acting Director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said more recently, there has been a shift in the industry for the better. Part of that is because managers look for talent and encourage growth.
"Seeking out and finding those individuals who have the capability and then supporting them, however you can, is absolutely essential," Brantley said. "I've worked in an environment where that wasn't the case for women, but it was very much the case for men. And that's disheartening. It discourages women even from speaking up or from trying to apply for internal leadership positions."
Women who spoke up at the session described being underpaid, underappreciated and often challenged in the field.
Cajun Navy Director of Operations Stacy Parker described being in the field and having someone look to her male colleagues for answers only to be told she's the one in charge.
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"I've been really grateful to have men in our organization who respect me and who respect the women in our organization. So if they see it happening, they redirect … they're really good about saying, ‘This is who you need to talk to,’" Parker said.
Parker says men who recognize the need for diversity are just as important to the industry's evolution.
The Cajun Navy often goes to remote places that are less likely to receive immediate help or media attention after a natural disaster. This requires the nonprofit to be more intentional with its employees and volunteers.
"I think we need to specifically say, 'how many women do we have on our team? How many people of color do we have on our team? What are the ages of the people on our team? What's their background? Where do they come from?'" Parker explained. "We might have a great team, but if we see there's not a lot of diversity, we should be intentional and saying, I'm going to pursue that."
Including more cultures and languages also needs to happen ahead of the storm. More than half of the population the NHC serves speaks Spanish, according to National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham.
During the last hurricane season, Graham said the NHC created a culturally-specific preparedness campaign to focus on the Hispanic community.
"We're going to continue on that so we can broaden that across more communities," Graham said. "We want to speak the way that they want to hear it, the way they're going to understand it, the way they're going to interpret the information so they can take those steps that they need to prepare."
The NHC is building a new area at the center in Miami to accommodate Spanish media.