Regional Public Works Emergency Management Cooperative: a case report

Tim Prince, Chief Engineer, Oakland County Drain Commissioner's office, Oakland County, Michigan; Tom Trice, Director of Public Works, Bloomfield Township, Michigan, and APWA Past President; and Michael Kenel, Senior Management Consultant, CDM, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Oakland County is located in southeast Michigan and consists of 61 cities, villages and townships (CVTs). The population density of the county varies from several larger cities that border Detroit in the southeast portion of the county, to a very rural environment in the northwest. The Oakland County Drain Commissioner (OCDC) oversees water, wastewater, and stormwater activities within the county and the Road Commission of Oakland County (RCOC) oversees the maintenance and operation of the county's roads and bridges. Although the larger cities and townships often have an independent public works staff, the rural communities are more likely to rely on the County for public works support. In addition, the Southeast Oakland County Water Authority (SOCWA) provides engineering support for water public works in 11 of the county's larger communities.

Oakland County is providing oversight and coordination of County and CVT activities in the areas of emergency, asset, and information management. The County recognizes that these three management systems overlap in the areas of data collection, storage, and distribution, and that CVTs will need to be able to access a common Information Technology (IT) system or network to achieve real-time data monitoring across the county. Thus, the County has developed a common systems approach, requiring that datasets and operational procedures be standardized across local jurisdictional lines to provide consistency and efficiency with newly implemented practices and acquired technologies.

With initial funding by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, OCDC selected a steering committee to enhance public works communication, data sharing, and response capabilities in the event of a disaster or catastrophic event. The steering committee includes representatives of OCDC, the County's CVTs, SOCWA, and OCIT, the County's Information Technology department. In looking at preparedness enhancements, the committee relies on an all-hazards perspective, recognizing the need to address both natural disasters (e.g., floods, storms, pandemics) and acts of sabotage (e.g., domestic or international terrorism). Finally, realizing that emergency preparedness tools and programs are more likely to be adopted when integrated into everyday work activities, the committee's recommended programs and tools focus on the more traditional, non-catastrophic events as well (e.g., water main breaks, debris clearing).

Perceived Needs and Benefits
With climate change and an apparent increase in activism and political extremism, the number and types of hazards confronting the public works infrastructure appear to be on the rise. Although no major acts of international terrorism have occurred in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, there continues to be concerns regarding domestic terrorism, extremist elements within more moderate activist organizations, and more likely, a devious act being committed by a disgruntled employee or citizen. In addition, although hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires are more frequently associated with the southern and/or western parts of the U.S., the Great Lakes and eastern regions of the country are becoming concerned with the perceived increased risk of flooding, droughts, and possible water shortages.

Three independent events suggest that the role public works personnel are to play in response to a catastrophic event is about to change. With the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001 it became apparent that public works personnel could be found working with local law enforcement and firefighting officials to clear away rubble and search for survivors. During the power outage of 2003 that impacted the northeastern U.S., we found public works personnel with hand-held lamps guiding motorists out of the downtown areas of New York City. Operations were curtailed due to insufficient emergency power backup at water and wastewater facilities. As the public contacted public works personnel, law enforcement, or their elected officials regarding the resumption of services, they often received different answers making it apparent that data sharing and communications in times of an emergency lacked consistency and timeliness. Finally, with Hurricane Katrina, we experienced such a vast extent of damage that it was clear public works personnel were going to be engaged in disaster recovery efforts long after local law enforcement and fire officials returned to their daily job assignments.

Faced with these challenges, public works personnel clearly exceeded the call of duty. Risking life and limb, they upheld America's longstanding tradition of helping people in need. Perhaps the real lesson learned from these events is that we need to invest in the emergency response capabilities of public works personnel just as we are doing for law enforcement officers and firefighters who currently receive the majority of security funds. Everyone benefits if public works personnel have the right equipment, training, and real-time information enabling them to respond in a timely and sustained manner.

Smaller communities, having limited or no public works staff to rely on in an emergency, are perhaps in greatest need of a regional emergency cooperative that can supplement their existing capabilities. As local governments experience less federal and state funding, it becomes even more imperative that communities take full advantage of programs and tools that can provide optimal emergency preparedness at the lowest possible cost.

Vision and Strategic Plan
Through facilitated meetings, the steering committee developed a long-term vision of where it wanted the County and CVT public works community to be in regards to emergency preparedness within the next five to eight years. The vision is for public works to work in concert with the other emergency response agencies within the County, and for the individual public works organizations to share resources, skills, and information so the County can prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from any disaster as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Four strategic goals were developed to support the public works community in reaching its long-term vision. The goals focus on having a sustainable governance structure that would oversee: the development of technologies and procedures in a consistent manner across the various CVT jurisdictions; the development of standardized emergency operating procedures that would service as the basis of training and exercises; the enhancement of emergency notification and interoperable communication systems; and the providing of public works personnel with the technology and real-time data to best manage an emergency.

The steering committee identified deliverables and/or activities that would need to be performed for the public works community to reach their strategic goals. Some 74 deliverables and/or activities were identified. These activities were grouped into 10 project initiatives which now serve as the basis of the steering committee's Strategic Plan for Emergency Preparedness.

Project Initiatives
The timing and degree to which the 10 project initiatives are implemented will depend on the availability of resources and the specific needs of the public works community as the program matures over the next four to five years. The projects were designed and described in such a fashion so that communities would clearly recognize that, by joining the regional cooperative, they could achieve an optimal level of preparedness with far less expense than if they were to try to achieve the same results on their own. The following project initiatives were identified:

1. Governance: Representatives of the various CVTs would be selected by the steering committee to oversee the activities of the cooperative. Specifically the governance board would:

  • Develop policy statements related to the direction and operation of the program.
  • Set short- and long-term goals and objectives.
  • Be responsible for securing funding.
  • Approve and monitor performance metrics.
  • Approve the scope, schedule, and budget for the 10 project initiatives.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities within the cooperative.

A second administrative body, the Technical Council, is needed to support the identification and adoption of new technologies in a consistent and efficient manner across the region. Technical Council members could consist of representatives from the County and CVTs recognized for their knowledge and expertise in specific disciplines including, at a minimum:

  • Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
  • Information Technology and System Networks
  • Emergency Management and Response
  • Online Water Quality Monitoring
  • Security System Design and Implementation
  • Communication Systems

The Technical Council would guide the governance board on the adoption of new technologies as they become commercially available, and would develop standards and protocols enabling the local communities to adopt acquired technologies for seamless integration across jurisdictional lines. The Technical Council also would act as a resource to local communities regarding the selection of specific vendor products and provide cost savings by recommending the consolidation of purchases.

2. Standardized Supporting Data Sets: The data management needs of GIS, Asset Management, Emergency Management, and Computer Maintenance Management Systems often overlap. For example, geographically locating critical infrastructure assets on a GIS system can support an emergency management program by enabling emergency personnel to arrive promptly at the scene. The physical condition and repair history for water mains as stored in an asset management database might be accessed to support a decision to replace the water main instead of repairing it again. As individual public works communities obtain and accumulate this data, it would be prudent to have a standardized data format and common terminology allowing data sharing and analysis in a similar fashion across the region.

3. Standardized Operating Procedures: Public works personnel need to know their specific roles and responsibilities in responding to an emergency. Often these responsibilities differ depending on the nature of the incident (e.g., tornado versus water contamination). Incident-specific emergency operating procedures adopted uniformly by all participants within the cooperative can enhance understanding and expectations during an emergency and serve as the basis for joint training and exercises. A formalized method of issuing additional operational procedures when new technologies are acquired should be implemented. This ensures the regular communication of what is needed to achieve optimal performance. It is particularly important that such procedures reflect the Incident Command structure as defined in the National Incident Management System and that the incident-specific emergency operating procedures address all hazards that might be expected to confront public works personnel.

4. Joint Training Program: Joint training can reduce overall costs, build relationships, promote communication across jurisdictional lines, and be structured to make maximum and practical use of standardized operating procedures. In addition to training on adopted procedures, training is also needed on the Incident Command System as it applies to public works operations, and on the deployment of new technologies as they are adopted across the region. Training, and possible credentialing of response team members, may remove the concern often expressed about the preparedness of personnel providing assistance. The overall training program can consist of courses provided by federal and state agencies, third-party vendors, or members of the Technical Council and local communities.

5. Communication and Alert Notification: Considerable investment has been made to provide local law enforcement and first responders with interoperable communications and automated alert notification systems. Such systems are equally important to public works personnel because of their expanded role in response and recovery operations. Typically, during the early phases of an emergency, there is a heightened need for law enforcement and firefighters to communicate quickly and effectively. Consequently, protocols may need to assign a lower priority to routine public works announcements to ensure that emergency communications are uninterrupted and that the entire system is not overloaded.

Given the large number of CVTs within Oakland County, and that multiple points of contact may be needed for some communities, an automated alert notification system can reduce call and response times significantly. Commercially available software packages can systematically send text and voice messages over an array of communication devices (e.g., land lines, cell phones, pagers, e-mails) until the targeted recipient acknowledges receipt of the message. Such systems can automatically translate voice and text messages into foreign languages. In addition, they often can overcome the obstacles that occur when individual communities use incompatible communication devices from different manufacturers.

6. Drills and Exercises: Building on the standardized emergency operating procedures and training defined earlier, drills and exercises complete the cycle. The lessons learned during the drills and exercises can be used to further refine the response procedures and training content. A strategy for conducting drills and exercises is needed if public works personnel are going to gain the maximum benefit. Experience suggests that public works personnel receive prior training in the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command organizational structure. Staff should understand the role and responsibilities of the Incident Commander, the various section chiefs (e.g., logistics, operations), and the supporting role team members need to play. By conducting sequentially more complex table-top exercises, the activities take on real meaning, especially if they are based on some of the more common disasters likely to be encountered (e.g., major water main breaks, inclement weather, power outages) by public works personnel. Similarly, live exercises are best received if they start with public works personnel and then expand to include local law enforcement and first responders, culminating with more complex incident scenarios involving multiple agencies (e.g., public health, hospitals, and state government agencies).

7. Mutual Aid Agreement and Response Teams: WARN (Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network) is a mutual aid initiative being promoted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and individual state emergency management agencies. WARN proposes that a mutual aid agreement is signed by the utilities to share resources in response to an emergency or catastrophic event. A number of states are expanding the initial concept beyond wastewater and water utilities to include transportation and other parts of the broader public works community. Contact names and equipment lists are provided to facilitate the exchange of resources. The Oakland County Mutual Aid (OCMA) agreement, developed as part of the Public Works Emergency Management Cooperative, goes well beyond WARN. OCMA provides a governance structure that oversees emergency management practices across jurisdictional lines. In addition to equipment and resource lists, OCMA looks at issues related to interoperable communications, alert notification, sharing of real-time information, and optimizing response capabilities through the creation of Rapid Response Teams. Rapid Response Teams are intended to optimize response capabilities by having a select and limited number of highly efficient, trained, and equipped response teams dedicated to specific emergency tasks such as road clearing, underground pipe installation, and emergency power generation. With a finite number of teams strategically placed throughout the county or region, the need for each community or jurisdiction to develop the sole ability to address a catastrophic event is avoided. Cost savings come from the consolidation of training, equipment, and exercise requirements.

8. SCADA and Security System Integration: Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Access Control/Video Surveillance Security Systems allow public works personnel to control and monitor operations at their individual facilities. In the event of an emergency, personnel may need to

Figure 1: A field monitor station measuring ammonia, conductivity, pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, UV, and total chlorine
abandon their work locations and seek shelter at a distant location. The ability to control and monitor these systems at a remote location provides an added margin of safety and redundancy. The operation of such systems on a common regional network allows, with appropriate access restrictions, personnel to access real-time data and control devices at any point along the network. This may prove valuable in those circumstances (e.g., airborne release of a toxic agent) where public works personnel are unable to access their normal work locations.

9. Contamination Warning Systems: Early warning detection of contaminated drinking water can significantly reduce the negative consequences related to a contamination. The EPA has developed a strategy for the early detection of water contaminants that couples five surveillance systems with a "Consequence Management Plan." Each of the following surveillance systems is to have clearly defined "triggering criteria" that will signal an increased level of threat and action:

  • Online Water Quality Monitoring (Figure 1 above)
  • Routine Sampling and Analysis
  • Public Health Disease Outbreak Surveillance
  • Citizen or Customer Complaint Call Centers
  • Security Breach Notification System

With each increasing threat level (possible, credible, or confirmed contamination event) the Consequence Management Plan details the appropriate additional investigation and emergency response measures that are to be implemented.

10. Web-based Emergency Information Portal: A critical factor in the long-term sustainability of any public works organization is the ability to retain and build on its existing knowledge base. This historical problem is further complicated by the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age. Formal succession plans are needed to avoid "brain drain." Hard copies of training materials and operational procedures that are not used on a routine basis are often stored out of sight, only to be retrieved in an emergency. With the advent of computer technology and the Internet, training materials and operational procedures can be retrieved online during non-emergency times. A secure and password-protected information Web portal that contains the following types of information can enable public works personnel to review materials when their workloads are at a minimum:

  • Facility-Specific Critical Infrastructure Protection Plans
  • Standardized Routine Operational Procedures
  • Standardized Incident-Specific Emergency Operating Procedures
  • Training Announcements and Individual Training Records
  • Emergency Evacuation and Shelter Plans
  • Location of Emergency Equipment, Spare Parts, and Key Personnel

In summary, the training and knowledge needed by public works personnel to respond to relatively infrequent emergency events can be significantly improved by providing a user-friendly information management system.

Critical Success Factors
Four critical success factors are identified in implementing the Public Works Emergency Management Cooperative: the need for top-down commitment, strong leadership, empowerment of local public works personnel, and funding.

As with any new initiative, strong senior management and organizational commitment are needed to promote significant change. This is particularly challenging for a regional cooperative where reporting and organizational structures are fractionated. It requires that the top managers in each participating public works community know, accept, and communicate the contributing roles and responsibilities of individual public works personnel dedicated within their organization. Without an ongoing commitment, any attempt to heighten preparedness will be short-lived.

Equally important is strong leadership from those overseeing the governance of the program. This is particularly difficult given the often challenging workloads of public service personnel. In many cases, this problem has been exacerbated by recent and frequent cutbacks in funding. This concern can be partially addressed if the cooperative's governing board establishes a management system approach, allowing board members to set policies, goals, objectives, and performance metrics demonstrating progress toward the intended goals. Such metrics must be easily measurable and are most relevant when directly related to an outcome. For example, a valid performance metric for the cooperative would be the amount of time it takes a Rapid Response Team to collectively assemble, fully equipped and ready to respond in a proficient manner, at a mock disaster site.

Empowering and holding public works personnel accountable are key ingredients. Frontline personnel often have the knowledge and practical experience to know what works well. Their views need to be considered as part of the design of any particular project or initiative and/or in the setting of reasonable performance metrics. Provided with the necessary tools, training, and data, their overarching goal is to implement any project or initiative in a manner that has a positive impact on the relative performance metrics. Given the often uncertainty regarding the impact of a project or initiative on a specific metric, it is often better to adopt a "continuous improvement" philosophy and acknowledge the benefit of incremental improvements.

Finally, funding is problematic. Federal grants, the primary means for funding such initiatives, is often sporadic and specific to a particular project or need. Ongoing funding may be needed from the benefiting local governments to address at least the administrative costs of running the cooperative. This can be in the form of actual dollars or donated time and equipment. In addition to providing oversight of the cooperative's activities, the administrative costs also support the application for federal grants. The solution to the funding dilemma is most likely to consist of several factors. For example, funds from local governments are likely needed for the administrative costs of the cooperative while more costly projects should be targeted for federal grants (of which there are a number of sources). The use of a risk-based approach could be utilized to prioritize all projects. As funds become available, projects offering the greatest risk reduction would be funded first. Finally, it should be accepted that the time of project completion will be related to the rate that funding is achieved.

Concluding Remarks
The need for a regional Public Works Emergency Management Cooperative is driven by the belief that the pooling of resources and skills can better attain an optimal state of readiness at the lowest cost. Getting local governments to accept this most general premise has not been difficult. By the same token, it is not difficult to gain acceptance of the belief that optimal preparedness can save lives and reduce property damage in the event of a catastrophe. The greatest contention seems to lie in how such programs are to be funded and in developing consensus on the optimal state of preparedness needed. An ongoing funding stream, even if minimal, is needed to sustain the cooperative over time. Otherwise, as in the past, we are likely to be confronted with a program that falls to the wayside, only to be regenerated after some new tragedy occurs.

Striving for consensus on some optimal state of preparedness might be a moot point. We all have perceptions on what needs to be done. But lack of time and resources often limits our ability to implement what is needed. Nevertheless, taking the time to agree on a vision and list of supporting projects will contribute to a sense of unity and direction. This is particularly important when dealing with a diverse and broad number of local communities that want to do the right thing, but are in need of some semblance of structure and organization.

Tim Prince can be reached at (248) 858-0958 or; Tom Trice, APWA Past President, can be reached at (248) 433-7732 or; and Michael Kenel can be reached at (313) 919-2685 or