Your New Year's Emergency Management Resolution: Helping me help you!

Dan Jensen
Government Affairs Manager
APWA Washington Office

In the short two and a half years that I have worked for the American Public Works Association, I have had the dubious honor of being witness to several devastating disasters that have changed this nation and the way we prepare for and respond to future catastrophic events. Indeed, if anything can be considered a silver-lining when it comes to catastrophes, it is that people come together to try and learn from their mistakes.

One of the processes that I have come to be a part of here in Washington, and one that is directly related to my duties within this association, is learning to engage the political machine as a means to ensure that public works professionals are better prepared for disasters, and that they are given the resources they need, be it funding or training, to be successful in the future. And as many of you know, it is not an easy task.

I am not telling you this to elicit your sympathy—far from it, in fact. I absolutely love what I do, and I love being on the forefront of the changes in emergency management, and having a hand in the events that help change destinies. OK, so I'm making it sound a little more romantic than it actually is. But the point I'm trying to make is that I believe in what I do. What's more, I believe in what I'm doing for public works professionals. I have made your cause my own.

But I can't fight for this cause alone. I need your help.

As most of you know, there are many other players—some much more recognizable than public works—when it comes to the field of first responders. Some of these groups, including fire, police and rescue personnel, are our friends. We are all interdependent on one another, and it is impossible to envision a first response to disaster with any piece of this great machine missing. Yet we, as a body of public works professionals across the country, struggle in a constant uphill battle for recognition from our local, state and national elected officials. These are the people who write the laws that authorize funds, training, interoperability, response plans, etc. You get the picture.

Yes, we have had some great successes. We have Presidential recognition (see Homeland Security Presidential Directive - HSPD-8), and have been given prominent roles in national groups and coalitions dedicated to educating legislators about the role of first responders. But we have so much further to go.

As people who value freedom, we believe in the power of the vote. We've been doing it since the age of 18. One of the greatest hallmarks of a free society is the ability to elect leaders and representatives that will serve our own interests—be they personal or professional. Most of us have voted at least once, and many of us treat it with an almost sacred sanctity. Voting is what separates us from the tyrannies of the past, and allows us to control our own destinies. It is the ultimate freedom of expression. Here I go being romantic again.

Yet, why is it that most of us limit our civic participation to the casting of a vote at the ballot box in November? Certainly there are other ways to shape our destinies when it comes to the way we are governed, right? Absolutely there are. Unfortunately, most of us are under the impression that to become more involved, one must dedicate hours on a campaign, spend time making endless phone calls or watch C-Span on the weekend. And yes, while some of these activities would make your high school civics teacher (and me) proud, most of us lack the time to carry them out. However, I'm saying to you that there is a way.

Becoming involved does not necessarily require much more of your already scarce time. For starters, I'm here in Washington along with several other experienced and dedicated APWA staffers to do most of the so-called dirty work for you. We just need to be privy to the issues that concern you. Don't count on the fact that someone else might do it, because that someone else is probably thinking the same thing. If it's a federal issue, we can get involved on your behalf. If it's local, we can guide you. Elected officials are far more willing to listen to us when they know one of their constituents—you—is behind the call to action.

Recently, after the California wildfires, APWA sent out a message to our California members letting them know what they can do and where they can go to get the help they need. Part of those instructions mentioned going to elected officials for help. In the same way ordinary citizens come together after an emergency, legislators bond with those they represent as well. Some may consider that pandering. Well, you bet it is! In a time when it is more important than ever to get public works professionals the recognition they deserve so that they can be better prepared for future disaster, you better believe we'll do all it takes to make sure we're not forgotten.

But apart from our efforts here on the APWA staff, you can do more as well. Develop relationships with your elected officials before the next disaster. Make sure they know what you do. Introduce yourself. Stop by their office and get to know the staff. And if you don't have time for that, write a letter. And if you don't have time for that, let us know! We have a ton of letters you can use for templates. We honestly want to help. The bottom line is that public works as a profession needs everyone to be engaged. We don't have shiny badges or beautiful red trucks, but we have people who understand every angle of emergency management.

Let's use this New Year to make ourselves heard. Let's go the extra mile. Let's lengthen our stride. Together, with enough perseverance, we can change the world for the better. I know... I'm being romantic again. But I've found that in being optimistic, others will become convinced to our cause. What better way to heed our own suggestion to "be prepared" for the next disaster than to prepare ourselves in every way? I'm excited about it. Are you?

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