Custodians of our quality of life

Martin J. Manning, P.E.
APWA President

Over the course of the past year we have all heard the term, "everyday hero." The term derives from the nation's experiences with the September 11, 2001 terrorist-inspired disaster. Everyone involved in providing public works and public works services all fit this description. In response to the everyday demands of public works and in response to disaster, you are there. You are not only "everyday heroes" but you are also "custodians of your nation's quality of life."

During Congress in Kansas City, we heard from Peter Montalbano, the First Deputy Commissioner of the Sanitation Department of New York City. Mr. Montalbano received an APWA Special Award of Merit for his department's response to the tragic disaster in his city. At the APWA Urban Forum meeting, he described what his department went through in their response to terrorist acts. His goal was to bring about the rapid recovery of his city. Remarkably, he accomplished his goal while still maintaining normal services for the remainder of the community.

We all tend to focus on his department's work in response to a terrorist-inspired disaster and we wonder what we would have done under similar circumstances. We question ourselves as to whether we could have responded as well. Clearly, the New York City public works agencies set a standard for their response and recovery activities. They have produced a model that we can study and learn how we can protect the security of our own communities.

However, there is another message in this story. That message is that even during a disaster the New York City Sanitation Department remained a "custodian of its city's quality of life."

Tomorrow, millions of people will awaken to take on the business of their day. They will bathe and never think of where their water comes from or where it goes after it is used. Millions of people will eat breakfast and never think of where the energy comes from to warm their homes or to cook their food. On a workday, millions of people will travel to their jobs or go to school and worry about the traffic or whether their transit will be on time; but they will never really think about how the complex transportation systems they rely on can safely deliver millions of people to their destinations every day. Tomorrow, millions of people at work or at play will use telecommunications to conduct business or to entertain themselves without thinking about how the systems work to serve them.

All of these things that are so taken for granted contribute to the quality of life of all of our citizens. Our nation would be a different place without these things available to rely upon. The infrastructure and services necessary to supply the support for these commonplace activities are public works infrastructure and public works services. Would we be able to enjoy the opportunities of community for social interaction, for economic opportunity, for education or for the enrichment of our culture that we enjoy now without them? I think not.

Yet, all of these things are part of the works and services that public workers manage, operate and improve. And so it is, that you are not only "everyday heroes," but you are also "custodians of your communities' quality of life." In each of these roles, you perform so well that the results of your efforts are considered commonplace. You are unsung in your efforts and the work that you do.

I salute you and all of the other unsung members of our profession and our industry, public works. You are all "everyday heroes" and also "heroic custodians of our quality of life."

This year, in the face of an unpredictable economy and reduced budgets, APWA is focusing on our membership. We will be working with your help to extend it to every other "everyday hero" and to every other "heroic custodian of our quality of life" that we can. Your help is vital because you know who these heroes are. And you know that now, more than ever, our profession and our public works industry need what APWA offers in education, in advocacy, and in the exchange of knowledge.

I've learned in this business that if you don't sing your own song, no one will sing it for you. For all of our unsung heroes, the best chance to find the right music to sing on the local, state and federal levels to make our story and our needs known is the American Public Works Association. Join me in seeking all of the heroes who need to become our members and let's make them all part of our APWA chorus.