Larry W. Frevert

Public Works ignored: Time to look in the mirror?

Larry W. Frevert, P.E.
APWA President

During the recent wildfires in California, Governor Schwarzenegger in a public address thanked firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel and volunteers involved in the efforts to fight the fires. Sadly, public works was conspicuously absent from the listing of agencies that he formally recognized.

It goes without saying though that public works personnel were instrumental in ensuring the availability of water to fight the fires, ensuring fire trucks were available to put in service, protecting critical infrastructure, establishing and operating evacuation routes and perimeters to protect evacuees, and clearing debris from roadways. We know the key role we play, but others don't.

Thanks to the leadership of our staff at APWA, a letter was sent to the governor and the mayor of each of the impacted communities offering assistance and reminding them of the presence of public works in fighting the fires and protecting the communities in which they reside. All other mayors of California cities (470 in all) received communications from APWA as a reminder of the critical role public works plays in emergency planning and response. In addition, letters were sent to all APWA members in California providing them with information on FEMA reimbursement procedures and offering assistance to them as well.

While we struggle with trying to understand why it is so difficult for public works to get recognized for the work that we do in responding to emergency situations in our communities, we have to ask ourselves: Does some of the responsibility lie at our door? Is it time to look in the mirror? In January 2005, then-APWA President Tom Trice challenged all APWA members to "make some noise and let these officials know who we are and what we do," because we "have always been the invisible first responder at the scene of many emergencies." Has APWA heeded that advice? More importantly, have members individually taken action locally?

Many of our Emergency Management Committee members have been invited to participate in emergency management training, meetings and workgroups with other first responders to share information on the role of public works in emergency operations. Without exception, each of the committee members has been told by emergency managers, fire and law enforcement representatives across the nation that they have been unable to get their local public works personnel interested in participating in meetings and training opportunities back home. Knowing that we have so much to bring to the table to benefit our communities, why are we not coming to the table?

All public works agencies are required to be substantially compliant with the National Incident Management System requirements in order to stay eligible for federal grants. There really is no justifiable reason for us to not only accept invitations to be at the table, but to be pushing our way in to ensure that our people and agencies are appropriately trained and available to participate in the protection and emergency responses in our communities.

The APWA staff in Washington, D.C. continues to be in active communication with federal agency staff, congressional staff and members of Congress to educate them on the role of public works and how APWA members can help on both the national and local efforts in protecting and responding in our jurisdictions. These efforts were exemplified with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between APWA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency at Congress last September.

APWA President Larry Frevert (front right) discusses the role of public works officials with FEMA Administrator David Paulison (front left). Also pictured are (clockwise from Mr. Paulison) APWA Immediate Past President Bill Verkest, APWA staff members Dan Jensen and Jim Fahey, FEMA staff members Amy Humphreys and Aaron Walker, and APWA Past President Bob Freudenthal.

The signing of the MOU at Congress was ceremonial. The real discussion with FEMA occurred in July when your Executive Committee and APWA staff met with FEMA Administrator David Paulison and his staff in his Washington, D.C. office. President Verkest and Past President Freudenthal and I, along with staff, were very impressed with the FEMA Administrator's personal knowledge of the MOU's content.

Administrator Paulison understood and was sensitive to our concern that no APWA members were included on the recently appointed FEMA National Advisory Council. He acknowledged the unintended oversight and promised to give consideration to our nominations for the Regional Advisory Councils in 2008. So far, we have recommended four members who have shown interest towards serving in that capacity. Also, as a follow-up to our visit to Louisiana in February, we shared the concern of our New Orleans members regarding FEMA's interaction with local public works officials in that community. As a result, Mr. Paulison agreed to have a member of his staff provide the program and respond to audience questions when the Louisiana Chapter holds their meeting later this month on January 10.

Members of the Emergency Management Committee and others continue to represent the APWA membership on such working groups and committees as the Homeland Security Consortium, National Incident Management Consortium, IAFC Mutual Aid Task Force, Presidential Senior Advisory Committee, SAFECOM and Credentialing. What we need is for each APWA member to take an active role in emergency management planning and training locally and take every opportunity to let your communities know the role of public works in emergency response.

This month's APWA Reporter focuses on emergency management with such topics as mutual aid agreements, update on credentialing and resource typing, cascading infrastructure, and training and exercising. A three-part Click, Listen & Learn Emergency Preparedness Series is underway with the second session taking place January 31. If you missed the first program, "Before the Disaster: Training and Exercise," a CD-ROM of the program will be available through the APWA Bookstore.

I want to encourage all of our members to educate yourselves on the role of public works as first responders and, if you haven't already, to make plans to establish a relationship with other first responders in your jurisdictions.

In the meantime, thank you for all you do for APWA and for your service daily to the public works profession.