New APWA Fact Sheet

The APWA Emergency Management Technical Committee recently completed a two-page fact sheet that describes the role of public works in emergency management. This fact sheet, the text of which is reprinted below, is titled "The Essential Role of Public Works in Emergency Management" and was developed for the non-public works community. Electronic copies can be printed in color or black and white and distributed to colleagues, other city or county officials, elected officials, or utilized for short presentations. You can find the PDF file at the APWA website resource center at

The Essential Role of Public Works in Emergency Management

A fact sheet from the American Public Works Association

Identifying the Players
Quick now, can you name the key players in emergency management? Okay, fire...police...medical services...but there is at least one other key player. What is the other essential player? Public works also serves as a First Responder in an emergency, but in the midst of the flashing lights, sirens, and uniformed service providers, the role the public works agency plays in any emergency event is transparent, often overlooked or misunderstood by the public and media. However, according to Oklahoma City Public Works Director Paul Brum—whose department has seen more than its share of major man-made and natural disasters—it is often likely that in an emergency, "the first and last man there will be public works; first with barricades, heavy equipment, lights, and last with debris removal."

While the term "public works" may not be used in every community, the personnel who perform those functions are responsible for designing, building, operating, maintaining and protecting our nation's vast public infrastructure and facilities. They are key players in protecting lives and preventing the loss of property from natural and man-made disasters, reducing human suffering and enhancing the recovery of communities after disaster strikes. Charged with the protection of our public infrastructure and facilities, the role of public works is more critical now than any other time in the history of the United States.

Understanding the Scope of Emergency Management Activities and Agency Interaction
The public's general perception is that emergency management is the body of activity that happens immediately after an event. In truth, emergency management involves all of the players mentioned above and takes place for an extended period of time before and after the event.

Interagency coordination, support and cooperation are vital to the success of any emergency management operation. Although one part of the team may be more visible than another during emergency response operations, no single discipline functions totally independent of the others. For instance:

  • Fire Department—suppresses fires, but public works provides the water, often maintains their vehicles and communications, and obtains many of their supplies.

  • Public works also may supply technical expertise and special heavy equipment.

  • In turn, public works often relies on other agencies and the private sector to assist in training its personnel for emergency duties.
Each player-agency has a role in the preparation and implementation of the community emergency management plan.

There are four stages of emergency management, which reach far beyond the actual event: Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery:

  • Mitigation (improving practices to reduce future problems)—in which public works bears an overwhelming majority of the effort

  • Preparedness (emergency planning and training)—in which public works generally has an equal share of the effort

  • Response (including but not limited to assisting law enforcement with barricades, traffic control, access control, etc.)—wherein public works primarily provides support functions

  • Recovery (includes both initial and completion phases)—in which public works has a predominant role.
Public works has an essential role in all phases of emergency management and provides a considerable share of the combined effort in them. Staffing during an emergency event is situational, with participation of various persons and agencies shifting according to specific needs. For instance, in natural events (floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.), involvement tends to increase for public works, particularly in the areas of response and recovery. In fact, in some events law enforcement, fire and medical services may have no involvement at all, particularly in the case of an infrastructure breach. At other times, the emergency manager will be from one of the other disciplines, and public works will play a support role. In still other communities, the public works agency is the lead agency in managing any emergency event.

Identifying Public Works Activities in Emergency Management
On a daily basis, public works professionals provide the water supply, sewage, transportation, refuse disposal systems, public buildings, safety and security, emergency management and planning for our cities. However, public works participation in emergency management may be difficult to identify at times because it usually is spread over several departments and/or the private sector. In fact, the degree of public works involvement has remained obscure because much of its normal activity is emergency-based without being billed or recognized as such, even by many public works leaders responsible for providing the services.

As Port St. Lucie, Florida's Public Works Director Larry Thacker says, "It's all part of public works." Whether participating in the largest evacuation in U.S. history as the City did in 1999 with Hurricane Floyd, or helping neighbors place sandbags at 2:00 a.m. during heavy rain events, or making many presentations to community leaders and residents to help them prepare for emergency events, Thacker takes it all in stride. Explaining that due to the City's location on the southeast coast of Florida—three to four times a year they begin staging equipment around the City five days before an approaching storm in an attempt to maintain community services—Thacker says, "Some storms materialize, others do not, but it's being prepared that counts."

Public works has a central role in mitigation by providing much of the required engineering and technical expertise. It also plans, constructs and operates most of the community's protective and lifeline facilities—facilities on which all community activity and health depend:

  • Transportation—streets, highways, bridges, airports, terminals, harbors

  • Utility systems—water, sewer, electric, gas, etc.

  • Drainage and flood control systems

  • Communication facilities—telephone, cable television, etc. Whether publicly or privately owned, these all are most often located on public rights-of-way or on public property, and public works must concern itself about the condition and continued operation of such critical facilities regardless of ownership.
To supplement its own resources or to bolster those of another agency in an emergency, public works often enters into Mutual Aid Agreements with other communities to provide personnel, equipment and/or materials during a response effort. In addition, public works often provides the barricades and heavy equipment necessary for responding to and recovering from emergency events. On a continuing basis, public works administers building and safety codes as well.

Public works officials are committed to working within their communities to make residents better prepared and to minimize the loss of life and property. Some facets of public works focus on infrastructure, while others focus on services and still others focus on both. Some give internal support to operations, but most involve direct service to the community. Whatever its daily focus, as the steward of the public infrastructure, public works has a significant place on the emergency management team to lessen the potentially devastating and long-lasting impact that disruptions or destruction of public services can inflict on a community.

The American Public Works Association (APWA), with roots more than 100 years deep, is the umbrella organization representing all facets of the public works industry. The association's more than 27,000 members throughout North America are counted among the leaders and decision makers in the field. For more information, visit our website at, call 816-472-6100 to speak with the Emergency Management Committee Staff Liaison, or send inquiries to the American Public Works Association, 2345 Grand Blvd., Suite 500, Kansas City, MO 64108-2641.