CAUTION: Changes Ahead!

Dan Jensen
Government Affairs Manager
APWA Washington office

Unless you've been under a rock for the past twelve months, you can't help but notice the changes taking place in the world around us. I'm not talking about the usual stories that make Washington such a dynamic place. I'm talking about the monumental, far-reaching disasters that seem to be happening with increased frequency.

It seems like every month we hear of something taking place even more terrible than what happened in the month preceding it. It started with the massive tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean. Next there were hurricanes, followed by more hurricanes. Before the year was out we were hearing about landslides, flooding, wildfires and epic earthquakes. The world seemed to be turned upside down and shaken before our very eyes.

While many could only stand back and watch the tragedies unfold on television, countless public works professionals and peers were right in the thick of battle. Whether it was in the Gulf States responding to hurricanes or in the northeast responding to extensive flooding, public works agencies and their emergency management crews were on the scene as first responders—working to save lives.

Of course, as communities started to clear debris and drain their neighborhoods of toxic floodwater so that life could approach a semblance of stability, two questions started to work their way into the spotlight with escalating urgency: How did this happen and who is going to pay for it?

Here in Washington, there have been a great number of hearings since August focused on those very two questions. Many ideas have been put forward on how to recover from these catastrophes, and even more ideas have been generated on where to lay the blame. While determining how things got so bad is an essential step in the lessons learned process, more constructive questions are being asked on how we can move forward. In fact, our very own Bob Freudenthal, APWA President, was invited to testify before Congress on incident command, control and communication during a catastrophic event.

Freudenthal was quick to point out the role of public works in emergency management and their response to critical situations. He gave examples of APWA's collective experience in dealing with numerous types of hazards and disasters that have occurred in our recent past. When asked by members of Congress what the federal government could do to help, Freudenthal responded by making clear the need for better interdisciplinary training through a federally-sponsored incident command instruction. Simply put, said Freudenthal, agencies that train and exercise together work better together during times of crisis.

Because of our participation in this nationally-televised congressional hearing, APWA has been contacted by other first responder groups, such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to develop new ways in which our associations can work together to improve awareness for emergency management issues on Capitol Hill. We will also be working together to improve emergency response capability and efficiency between the various first responder disciplines and seeking out new grant and funding opportunities.

While these are just a few high-profile examples of how APWA members are reaching out to help make emergency management better equipped to handle future incidents, there are many other examples that are taking place on a continuing basis that don't get as much publicity. Congress recognizes the efforts of public works when responding to emergencies. With that recognition comes the responsibility to use our collective voices to make sure things run more smoothly the next time a disaster strikes.

One of the ways in which the voice of public works has made a difference is in how Congress views and defines its role in disaster prevention and response. Where before, and understandably so, much of the emphasis has been on preventing and responding to terrorist attacks, Congress now seems to be shifting towards an all-hazards approach to disaster mitigation—something APWA has been advocating for years.

Public works has understood for decades the need for comprehensive planning and preparedness for all types of disruptive events, whether relatively minor or monumentally catastrophic. With our role as planners and responders, public works is in the unique role of being able to effectively contribute experienced voices to the recovery process as our nation enters this new phase of disaster and emergency awareness.

The needs of public works professionals tend to be more varied in their scope than the needs of other first responders. Our emergency management professionals live in the largest cities and the most rural towns—each with a unique perspective and set of priorities. Because of this, it is important to meet this unexpected challenge facing our nation with a willingness to offer varied ideas and stand behind measures that will bring better tools to the emergency management community as a whole.

How our government chooses to respond to these recent disasters will almost certainly have wide-ranging and lasting effects on public works. If we are to add our input to the changes that will affect our industry, livelihoods and communities, we must first be informed. Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, there have been over 80 pieces of relief legislation introduced in Congress with a price tag that could potentially exceed $200 billion. With numbers like that, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the scope of this disaster and what it means for you. If you're one of the confused, don't worry—APWA has you covered.

APWA's advocacy page on the website (www.apwa.net/advocacy) is an excellent place to obtain information on the latest legislative news affecting public works. In addition, you can sign up for "legislative alerts"—e-mails that are sent directly to you if an issue comes up that requires your immediate input. It is the nature of Washington to move either very slowly or very quickly. The one constant, however, is unpredictability. Visiting the advocacy page regularly is the best way to rest assured you are not missing out on any issues that might have consequences for the public works community.

According to most experts, the United States will be facing increased hurricane activity over the next 20 to 30 years. Bearing this in mind, the burdens facing our industry, and indeed our country, will certainly be increasing. Being informed and participating in the process will ensure that our needs as public works professionals are incorporated into any national emergency management structure. Stay informed, use the many legislative resources APWA has to offer and help to ensure that public works is represented in all levels of emergency management.

Dan Jensen can be reached at (202) 218-6734 or djensen@apwa.net.