The role of public works in emergency management

Karen Bloodworth
Technical Services Program Manager
APWA Kansas City office

What comes to mind when you consider public works and emergency management? Paul Brum, former Oklahoma City Public Works Director, states that "Public works personnel are the first and last on the scene—first with barricades and portable lights and last with heavy equipment to remove debris." Since the attacks of 9/11 and on the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, the role of public works has evolved even further as departments are called upon to respond to new and emerging threats.

Public works departments provide essential emergency response services that we must communicate to our city councils, colleagues and citizens, services such as assessing damage to buildings, roads, and bridges; clearing, removing and disposing of debris; restoring utility services; and managing emergency traffic. Additionally, public works is integral to your jurisdiction's emergency planning efforts, hardening and security enhancements to critical facilities, and monitoring the safety of public water supplies.

Subject matter experts within the Emergency Management Technical Committee and staff at APWA have developed a very effective color brochure/fact sheet entitled "The Essential Role of Public Works in Emergency Management" that should be useful in communicating our message. Following are some of the key topic areas included in the fact sheet.

An Enhanced Role for New Challenges and Threats

  • Transportation - streets, highways, bridges, airports, terminals, harbors and traffic management
  • Utility Systems - water, sewer, electric, gas
  • Drainage and Flood Control Systems - stormwater, planning, design, construction
  • Communication Facilities - telephone, cable television, etc. Whether public or privately owned, these 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.
  • Public Facilities - courthouses, town halls, parks, playgrounds and other public infrastructure are built, managed and maintained by public works. On a continuing basis, public works also administers building and safety codes.

Where Public Works Fits in Emergency Management

  • Prevention/Mitigation (minimize risk to reduce future losses) - Public works is key when these measures involve engineering or construction activities.
  • Preparedness (planning, training, and exercising) - Public works is vital to ensure that plans are comprehensive and exercises test the full response to an event.
  • Response - Public works serves a first-response role acting as a technical resource to fire and police providing personnel and equipment.
  • Recovery - Public works plays a predominant role assessing damage, clearing debris, and rebuilding and restoring lifelines in the community.

The President, Congress, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have recognized this crucial first-response role in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. 101) and Homeland Security Presidential Directives 5 and 8 (HSPD-5 and HSPD-8). The President and DHS recognize that to combat the threat of terrorism all disciplines must work together during prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery operations.

First responders are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment. Public works personnel provide immediate services during prevention, response, and recovery operations. This vital role has been recognized in the National Response Plan (NRP), the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Plan (CIPP).

Interagency coordination, communication, and collaboration are vital to achieve the most effective, efficient response possible. No single discipline functions independently. The fire department plays an offensive role—suppressing fires, while public works plays a defensive role—supplying water for fire suppression and working to restore any lifelines affected by the blaze. The public works department also often maintains fire and police department vehicles and communication equipment as well as supplies.

The public's general perception is that emergency management only occurs immediately after an event—the recovery phase. In truth, emergency management activities take place every day and include prevention/mitigation and preparedness programs before disaster strikes.

Emergencies are dynamic and require the participation of various agencies which shifts according to specific needs. For instance, public works involvement during response and recovery increases during natural disasters, such as floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In some events, such as a water main break or power outage, public works may lead the response and recovery efforts. In some communities, the public works agency is the lead agency in managing any emergency event, and the director of public works is also the director of emergency management.

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 or states to provide personnel, equipment and/or materials during a response effort. Public works also manages contracts for additional labor, equipment, or services that may be needed during an event.

The task now is to continue integrating the public works team into emergency response to ensure that our nation can prevent, prepare for, respond to, or recover from any disaster as quickly and efficiently as possible. Use this valuable fact sheet/brochure to spread the word about the public works industry and your department. You can find the brochure online at /DR/index.asp?ID=67, or contact Karen Bloodworth at