Jan 17, 2013

Public Works Professionals as First Responders

Integrating public works into emergency management


Philip R. Mann, P.E.
Traffic Operations Manager
City of Gainesville, Florida
Member, APWA Emergency Management Committee
In the early morning hours of January 29, 2012, there was a multi-vehicle traffic crash on I-75 on Paynes Prairie in Alachua County, Florida. The traffic crash occurred in the fog and involved 25 vehicles and claimed the lives of 11 people and injured another 18 people. Our community immediately went into incident management mode with notifications to fire rescue, law enforcement and public works. The result was that the interstate was closed in both directions for approximately 24 hours.
Immediately, incident command was established with representatives from the various first responders forming the command team. As the incident occurred on the interstate, the Florida Department of Transportation, having jurisdiction, assumed the lead in the public works role.
Early in the event, fire-rescue took the lead in incident command as it was a search-and-rescue operation. After the rescue phase was complete, law enforcement assumed the lead role to investigate the traffic crash. In the final phase, public works assumed the lead role for the repair of the interstate that included damaged guard rail and asphalt.
During the course of the day, first responders worked with each other in addressing the various aspects of the incident. The interagency coordination was smooth and seamless.
The seamless coordination can be credited to the working knowledge that the first responders have of the other first responder agencies and their people. Due to the communities’ ongoing efforts in emergency management training, disaster preparedness drills and planned special events, the management and command staff of law enforcement, fire-rescue and public works are familiar with their counterparts in each of the other disciplines.
So how did Gainesville/Alachua County reach this type of integration of public works into the overall emergency management/unified command team? It was not easy and it did not happen overnight.
To gain a better understanding of the public works role, you first have to have an understanding of the law enforcement and fire-rescue roles. They work in a 24/7/365 environment and, in general, always work in an incident management role. When they are faced with a situation, absence any other support or information, they will resolve the situation and move on to the next scenario.
In public works, on the other hand, we are used to a normal fixed weekly workday schedule. During that normal workday, our workforce comes in and has planned projects and assignments. Incident management mode is an exception instead of the rule. It becomes vital that public works be ready to: (1) quickly transition to an incident management role; and (2) be prepared to respond and provide support 24/7.
The next step is to ensure that your agency participates in emergency management training, exercises and related events that will also involve the other first responder departments within your organization. To garner their acceptance into an emergency management role, you have to demonstrate that public works is a resource and can be counted on during an emergency, regardless of time of day.
So, how did the City of Gainesville get to the level we are today? We started in training and meetings on ways we could provide assistance and relieve other first responder personnel to perform law enforcement or fire-rescue duties. We demonstrated that we could handle traffic control, barricades, detour routes and establishing a perimeter to free law enforcement officers up from traffic posts to perform crime prevention/analysis work. We also demonstrated that, with lighted barricades, arrow boards and variable message signs, we could provide a lot of information to motorists in both daylight and darkness setting, improving both officer and motorist safety.
We further demonstrated our capabilities by giving additional assistance through our technical staff. An example is with our engineers, who have a strong physics background. Engineers provide a different view of a traffic crash scene and can provide alternative insight into environmental and design factors that may have affected the cause of the crash.
On the fire-rescue side, I remember a specific training in which an unnamed firefighter asked what good an equipment operator (such as a backhoe) in self-contained breathing apparatus would be on a fire scene. The answer was “a lot more effective than a firefighter with a shovel.” That exchange emphasizes the point that we have to change everyone’s line of thinking for responding to incidents.
This experience has led to our Police Department calling the Public Works Department whenever they have a major road closure to provide traffic control and establish a perimeter. They request a traffic engineer whenever there is a serious motor vehicle crash, and that engineer responds to the scene of the crash and reviews engineering and environmental factors that may have led to that crash and also provides input to the Police Department regarding the crash reconstruction.
It has also led to the Gainesville Fire Department calling the Public Works Department for major structure fires. On several occasions, Public Works staff has responded to the scene of an active structure fire with heavy equipment and equipment operators. That equipment is used to help the Fire Department get to parts of the building that were inaccessible to firefighters and allow them to complete the firefighting process.
Through our reoccurring participation and assistance in emergency management, utilizing the Unified Command pyramid has become second nature for the City of Gainesville. Whenever there is an incident, Public Works is immediately notified by either the Police or Fire Departments. They also understand that, outside of our normal business hours, we have to call staff out so they provide as much notification as possible to get our call-out process started.
Which leads me to another critical component for achieving and maintaining success—our front-line personnel. The Department has three different staff members on call at night. All staff that serves in an on-call capacity is educated on the importance of working with the other first responders and the need to respond in a timely manner.
Now that we have established those relationships, it is critical that we maintain them on a daily basis. We have utilized unified command and the incident command system on a variety of planned events:
  • Seven home football games annually at the University of Florida
  • University of Florida’s Annual Homecoming Parade & Gator Growl (pep rally)
  • The January 29, 2012, I-75 traffic crash that involved 25 vehicles and 11 fatalities
  • The Dove World Outreach Congregation’s International Judge a Qur’an day
  • The Dove World Outreach Congregation’s International Burn a Qur’an day
  • Protests from the followers of the Westboro Baptist Church
  • NCAA Football & Basketball National Championship Celebrations for the University of Florida athletic teams
  • Extreme Makeover Home Edition’s reconstruction of a single family home
Through these professional relationships, the command level staff that works with each other on a daily basis has developed personal relationships as well. Through these established relationships, the various members of command level staff routinely call each other for assistance, advice and even direction about how to address a normal routine business issue in the other’s department.
If you do not already have this type of interagency interaction and relationships, it will not change overnight. Public works staff must be vigilant at developing the relationships and interjecting itself at the appropriate locations in these incidents. It has be a grassroots effort to gain local acceptance and that can only be obtained through repeated participation in incidents and continued demonstration of the benefits that public works provides.
Philip R. Mann can be reached at (352) 393-7960 or mannpr@cityofgainesville.org.