Public Works: An important player in homeland security

Neil S. Grigg
Professor, Department of Civil Engineering
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado
Member, APWA Engineering and Technology Committee

If public works managers did not have enough to do, "homeland security" has been added to their responsibilities. However, there is a positive side to this burden: It places a badly-needed spotlight on the importance of public works, much of which is classified as "critical infrastructure."

This new responsibility emerged gradually. In 1852, when the American Society of Civil Engineers was founded, "public works" was not extensive. Soon, cities became more complex, and public works and city management emerged as professions. By the 1920s associations for operators were forming, and APWA was formed in the 1930s. During World War II, national security focused on building tanks and planes, and eventually developing the atomic bomb, but local infrastructure was not considered a security issue, and public works' roles were focused on developing and managing infrastructure to work effectively. Now, this task has broadened to embrace the wider concern of security, along with effective capital management and operations.

What has changed?
Public works managers can gain a perspective on the changes by considering how "civil defense" developed over the last fifty years. It emerged as part of the larger issue of "national security," which developed as an issue during the Cold War. During the 1950s, national security was defined by Colonel George Lincoln of West Point as "the protection of our land, our people, and our way of life from aggression or the threat of aggression."(1) He showed how the United States' preparations to mobilize during World War I illustrated the importance of transportation and supply systems and how World War II taught lessons about preparing for national security through economic efforts guided by government action.

Due to military advances after World War II, the cushions of time and distance that had protected the United States from its enemies diminished, and during the 1950s, for the first time, intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers threatened the homeland. A generation of schoolchildren remembers 1950s air raid drills and preparation for nuclear attacks. Under the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency was born.

In 1979 FEMA was created, merging responsibility for the full range of emergencies and disasters (natural, technological, and man-made, as well as those resulting from conventional war or nuclear attack) under its umbrella. In its first years, emergency management at the national level was focused more on national security than on natural, technological, or man-made emergencies or disasters because there were few of these problems in that period.

After about 1989, the world changed as a result of changing geopolitics and increasing impacts of large-scale natural disasters. Events such as Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, and record Midwest flooding shifted the emphasis from civil defense and attack preparedness toward preparedness for and response to natural disasters.

However, terrorism became a larger factor in calculations about national security. In the 1960s the United States had learned about guerrilla warfare in the Vietnam conflict, and by the 1970s radical terrorism had emerged, driven by value-driven causes. By the 1990s national concern about terrorism had increased. In 1996, a Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure was formed. Then, the nation's cyber infrastructure became a target, as we learned during the ramp-up to Y2K, which featured intense interest in how well physical infrastructure systems would work on January 1, 2000. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the focus on internal security increased greatly. Now, FEMA must embrace a much wider spectrum of threats than in the past. In 2003, it was merged into the new Department of Homeland Security.

How should public works respond?
Considering the many types of public infrastructure systems and services to protect, and the many sources of threats, you can see the immense challenges facing public works managers today. These new threats to infrastructure, along with its increasing complexity and interdependency, add to the load on public works management systems.

There is no single best response to these many challenges because the problem involves so many parts of physical systems and organizations. Perhaps the biggest challenge faced in preparing for disasters is overcoming organizational constraints. The emergency plan is the starting point for disaster preparedness, but public works organizations must do much more to prepare against threats. There are roles for all sections of organizations. Public works leaders must ensure that the utility strategic plan includes goals and strategies to survive disasters and take care that overall management planning, organizing, and control ensures that the organization is prepared against threats. Operators must prepare plans and respond during emergencies by mobilizing forces and allocating resources as needed to minimize adverse effects. Planners must plan for system hardening and mitigation. Training is an important requirement, because the organization must be trained from the bottom up.

Past emergencies provide valuable lessons for public works preparation.(2) The organization needs a "champion" at the top to improve commitment. Managers must realize the needs and plan in advance, employees must work together and prepare, and the community must be involved. It may be necessary to jar people out of complacency to "convert non-believers." Ordinary flow charts do not help much with unstructured decision scenarios in emergencies, and the organization should try to keep emergency operations as close as possible to normal operations. All parts of organizations must participate and must cooperate with each other and with other organizations.

One of the areas of need is designing more robust systems from the beginning, so that total reliance is not placed on security overlays, mitigation, and emergency response systems. However, design engineers are not well-prepared to add security as another design goal, to go along with functionality and economics. Design guides, resources, and codes and standards must be upgraded, and the system for teaching design to engineers must be improved.

The answer to the question "how should public works respond" is "across the board." In the final analysis, public works is the profession that integrates design, construction, operations and other aspects of management to build and maintain public infrastructure and services. It is logical that it should have a lead role in the new responsibilities of making critical infrastructure systems more secure.

The next questions for APWA and its leaders deal with specific measures to take. Public works will have to be involved from the ground up. A national-local agenda must be created to identify the challenges and respond to them. The starting point will be a lively dialog about how to protect systems, while at the same time making them work better and last longer. Adapting the public works workforce to the challenge will require recognition and training all through organizations.

Now that homeland security involves critical infrastructure systems, with the responsibility to guard against all types of threats, public works must move closer to the world of security officers and emergency personnel, while remaining close to its engineering and management roots. It is a formidable challenge, but one to which APWA should respond effectively.

Neil S. Grigg is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the APWA Reporter. He can be reached at (970) 491-3369 or at

(1) Lincoln, George A. 1954. Economics of National Security: Managing America's Resources for Defense. Second Edition. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs.

(2) Grigg, Neil S. 2002. Surviving Disasters in Water Utilities. AWWARF Report. Denver, CO.