Public Works: Part of the team

Judith M. Mueller
Public Works Director
City of Charlottesville, Virginia
Member of the National Emergency Services, Law Enforcement, and Public Health and Hospitals Senior Advisory Committee

Wow—the chance of a Presidential appointment. It was an awesome thought. I filled out reams of paperwork, answered loads of questions, and was subjected to incredible background checks for over four months. But thanks to a lot of work by APWA's Washington Office, I got the call, "You have been selected for a Presidential appointment to the Senior Advisory Committee to the new Office of Homeland Security."

My next step was a trip to D.C. The day began with an early morning drug test at the Executive Office Building, where actually finding the room was a huge adventure. From there it was on to our first meeting with then-Governor Tom Ridge where we raised our hands and were sworn in. We then took a seat and began to introduce ourselves. The group of 14 had amazing credentials with impressive jobs and titles. I was near the end, and when I explained who I was and why I was there (to represent APWA and the public works community), I was met with blank stares and little recognition.

So it began, and it was clear from the start that my job was to make these "traditional first responders" understand why we in public works need to be part of the team. The first few meetings were tough as police and fire representatives were less than accepting of the rest of us in the room. But slowly it started to happen, and as we talked through issues and who does what and when, they began to understand that public works has a crucial role in all emergencies.

The more we met, and the longer we talked, the greater my role as a team member emerged. But turning police and fire representatives into true believers has not been easy. The Homeland Security staff got it earlier than all the rest and made sure that public works was included in all our work projects. We first developed the Statewide Template Initiative and then worked on the National Incident Management System.

Homeland Security was established as a new Department, and Tom Ridge was appointed as the first Secretary. The great news is that he insists on attending all of our meetings and hearing our feedback firsthand. The meetings have moved around the country to allow members to observe homeland security efforts. We reviewed border security at Detroit where we saw how technologies developed following 9/11 have enhanced the border patrol's ability to screen entrants to our country.

Members of the Charlottesville Public Works Department battling an underground water leak

Our advisory committee met jointly with the State and Local Officials Advisory Committee, representing governors, mayors and city managers. They quickly appreciated the knowledge and expertise that our members brought to the table and recommended that we meet jointly in the future. Once again, I was able to make sure that public works and our role in homeland security was placed upfront on the agenda.

This past December we met in Miami, along with the State and Local Officials and two new senior advisory committees, Research and Policy and Private Sector. I cannot overemphasize the outstanding representation these committees bring their industries and educational institutions. So my "educational campaign" continued to ensure that these new leaders recognized public works and its role. The Miami trip highlighted the incredible challenges of securing our ports and the new role of the Coast Guard in tightening our borders.

The good news is that we have made great progress: The new Department of Homeland Security staff has embraced public works as members of the first responder community. Secretary Ridge understands our role. The emergency medical responders group has approached APWA to make sure that we are included in training for their members. And the "traditional" police and fire representatives are beginning to understand that there are other key players in the emergency response community.

Our work to date has been exciting and difficult. I have had the opportunity to meet some fascinating people and learn more about other professions and industries than I ever expected. Reviewing federal legislation and policy is not fun, but it is crucial if we are to make sure that legislation created at the federal level works for those of us at the local level. Now comes the tough part as we make sure that the necessary funds for our members to be properly trained and equipped become a part of budgets at both the federal and state levels.

Our committee is currently working on developing a lexicon of terminology for first responders. One lesson learned from 9/11 is that different professions have different terminology and acronyms that are not universally understood. Our goal is to create a lexicon that is understood by all professionals at all levels, and that can be institutionalized in our training.

In addition, we are working on a program to highlight and celebrate communities that have created homeland security model programs that can be replicated across the country.

At your level, whatever it may be, it is critical that you make sure that your government, both at the state and local levels, recognizes public works for the skills and roles we bring to all emergencies.

Judith M. Mueller was APWA President in 2000-2001. She can be reached at (434) 970-3301 or at mueller@charlottesville.org.