When disaster strikes: Public Works must keep critical services running

6/10/2002 12:00 AM

They may not make the evening news, but in any disaster, public works personnel are working behind the scenes to assist emergency responders and trying to keep critical public services running.

They are the ones called on to turn off gas lines, manage traffic flow or operate heavy machinery, and also the ones working to restore electricity and phone service and to repair water lines.

In the past, public works departments often were not included in the development of emergency response plans and didn’t view themselves as part of the emergency response team, says TEEX program coordinator Roy Robinson. Yet, the city’s gas, electric, water/wastewater and transportation departments are vital for effective response to any emergency, he adds.

“During a crisis or disaster, public works must keep critical services functioning and in place for people who need them,” said Robinson, of the TEEX Engineering, Utilities and Public Works Training Institute. “They prioritize their individual efforts to assist the incident commander and maximize the jurisdiction’s response.”

Robinson, who coordinates “Public Works: Planning for and Responding to Terrorism/Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD),” says that since Sept. 11, the number of courses offered has grown from about 40 a year to 84 or more courses this year. With the threat of terrorism on the rise, critical public infrastructure is an obvious target, he adds.

“People are asking for this course,” Robinson said. “We now have county and city leaders who recognize that their organizations must be prepared to respond not unlike a New York City or Washington, D.C. It could happen anywhere in America.” He says he gets an average of five calls or e-mails a day, and all training dates are full through the end of 2002.

The on-site course has reached more than 2,200 people in 10 states so far, but by the end of 2002, Robinson expects the training to have been offered in one-third of the states. The course was developed with input from the American Public Works Association and is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Domestic Preparedness. The management-level course is one of several offered by the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center at TEEX.

The goal of the three-day course is for each jurisdiction to develop a multi-discipline incident management team capable of responding to a crisis or the consequences of a WMD or terrorist incident. Participants should include a balanced combination of personnel from local agencies, including public works, fire services, hazardous materials response, law enforcement, emergency medical services, public health and emergency management. Participants may also include private entities or nonprofit agencies, such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, which may offer additional resources and services during in a crisis.

One of Robinson’s goals is to get each city or jurisdiction to “take the Emergency Operations Plan off the shelf and reexamine it.” He says communities are encouraged to update the plans and conduct an exercise program.

The course includes team-building and small group activities along with facilitated discussion, Robinson said. “We give them an overview of terrorism and talk about different incidents. The World Trade Center tragedy makes it easy for them to see the impact on people. And by sitting in the classroom together, they can learn from each other, and what expertise each group can bring to one of these large-scale incidents. And we can also bring ideas from other communities across the country. We make it an open, dynamic discussion.”

He said a major benefit of the class is that participants develop relationships with others in the room, people they would be working with under very stressful conditions. At the end of the class, the instructors hand out a class roster with names and contact information to all of the participants.

An on-line course which covers the basic prerequisites to “Public Works: Preparing for and Responding to Terrorism/WMD” is expected to be introduced by July, and Robinson is also assisting other staff within EUPWTI, to develop courses specifically aimed at reducing vulnerabilities in electric power and water/wastewater systems.

“One fire chief told me, ‘The public works folks really are the unsung heroes of emergency response. Whenever we need something, they are there.’ More officials are beginning to realize that,” Robinson said.

“The participants in this class see themselves as guardians of the public trust. They shoulder the responsibility of protecting the public and the public’s infrastructure.”

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