Public Works: The nation's forgotten first responder

It's becoming obvious that the yellow trucks deserve a place alongside the red trucks and the blue cruisers. So why doesn't public works get more respect?

Janet Ward
Senior Editor
Homeland Protection Professional magazine

Certain events—Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, the Challenger disaster—become the defining points for a generation, the one event for which everyone in that generation will say, "This is where I was when I heard."

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were such a defining point. But for Peter King, they had a double significance. King, Executive Director of the Kansas City, Mo.-based American Public Works Association, was in Philadelphia at that organization's annual conference when the planes hit.

He and the 26,000 members of APWA immediately grasped that neither the country nor the public works community would ever be the same. "There was talk of shutting down the conference," King says. "The decision was to continue. We immediately convened the Board of Directors and the Emergency Management Committee. It couldn't have been a better group of people to have together at that time. All of them were public works directors trained in emergency response."

APWA moved quickly to address the Sept. 11 attacks. By the time Philadelphia's hotels began rolling out the TV screens to allow their visitors to follow the events, the APWA leadership was calling together its forces. The group met with Pennsylvania Convention Center security personnel and began putting together a communications center to allow its members to contact their communities. The Board of Directors and the Emergency Management Committee agreed to meet hourly to assess the situation and discuss strategy.

Blue-collar first responders
But what was fortunate for King presented problems for cities and counties across the country. Once the reality of the attacks settled in, communities began to panic. For many of them, the heart and soul of their public works departments were in Philadelphia, with no way to get home once the nation's air transportation system had shut down.

A number of those cities and counties actually footed the bill for their public works directors to purchase vans and cars so they could drive home. Many communities began to doubt the wisdom of having so many of their critical personnel away from home at one time. It was a time of validation for the public works community, though that validation has worn thin in the subsequent months.

Some 20 years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had developed the policies and procedures that would form the basis of its terrorism response guidelines. In developing those policies, FEMA targeted what it defined as "first responders," police and law enforcement, public health, fire and public works personnel.

Since Sept. 11, the term "first responder" has gained a cachet that no one could have predicted. New York's fire and police departments have become the nation's new heroes, and, as a result of the subsequent anthrax scares, reams of paper have been devoted to the critical importance of the country's public health system. And public works? Well, public works has become the forgotten first responder.

It's a role that, while not exactly relished, is accepted by public works professionals around the country. "They're the ones who handle the rescues," says Paul Brum. "We serve in a support role. We're the ones who set up the barricades and make sure the Porta-Potties work."

As Oklahoma City's longtime public works director, Brum has some experience with the issue. His office was a critical component in recovery efforts after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "They're the people in the white hats," he says of the police and fire personnel. "We're the blue-collar workers. We accept that."

A specialized training center
However, while most public works employees have no problem accepting their support role, many think that role is rarely fully appreciated. First-response training programs abound, but they are often geared to public safety and health professionals, despite the fact that much of the information imparted is critical to the operation of public works in the wake of an emergency. The one program specifically designed to train public works professionals to respond to Sept. 11-like crises is little more than a year old.

The National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center (, operated out of Texas A&M University's Texas Engineering Extension Service, offers counterterrorism training at its College Station headquarters directed at public works departments throughout the country. Additionally, the center funds on-site training free to any city or county public works department that requests it. Since Sept. 11, calls to the center have mushroomed. "We used to do one course a week, now we're doing three to four," says Mark McCain, principal consultant with St. Helena Island, S.C.-based Public Works Emergency Management Services and an NERRTC instructor.

The center's three-day courses are based on eight modules, which vary in length. The first module covers an introduction to weapons of mass destruction and encompasses the motives for their use and the types of actions that might be expected. Modules on legal issues, vulnerability assessment, incident command, resource management, incident response, recovery and plan development follow.

Thus far, the center has trained between 1,600 and 1,700 people in some 55 communities. Its integrated approach—it is designed for public works personnel, but all first responders are welcomed—is what sets the program apart.

"We did a training exercise in St. Croix," says Roy Robinson, an NERRTC course manager. "Ron Hatcher, the training officer for the Virgin Islands Police Department, said it was the first time everyone had been at the same table. That's pretty much the message we hear. We try to engage the other folks—fire, law enforcement, HazMat, emergency medical, public health—because we want an integrated response. It can seem strange for some people, because they're not used to having public works people involved."

"I recommend it very, very strongly," says Phil Chin, assistant to the public works director for the City and County of San Francisco, which just completed the training. "It helped us focus on the effects of terrorism. We have a fairly good handle on natural disasters, but we weren't too knowledgeable about the specifics of terrorism or WMD. An earthquake is fairly non-discriminating. Terrorism is focused. We learned what to look for and what to look at."

Yet more training opportunities
Besides the NERRTC, three of the best training programs, the Center for National Response in Kanawha County, W.Va.; the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala.; and FEMA's Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md., offer a number of tracks that cover functions generally considered part of the public works bailiwick: HazMat response, mass transit episodes and multi-hazard building design.

The Center for National Response ( operates out of Memorial Tunnel, an abandoned turnpike tunnel in southern West Virginia. Operated by Titan Systems Corp.'s Defense Programs Division and financed by the National Guard Bureau of the Department of Defense, the center provides training to federal, state and local emergency teams.

Intriguingly, the center has no defined curriculum; the staff creates response situations designed for whatever kind of group is currently taking its training. The center has designed scenarios ranging from production of biological toxins to subway derailments to accidents involving over-the-road toxic cargo. Cameras record response actions from start to finish, giving participants a take-home record of the training.

Located at the former Fort McClellan (Ala.) army base, the Center for Domestic Preparedness ( is the product of a congressional directive to create a site that would "serve as a training facility for all relevant federally supported training efforts that target state and local law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and other key agencies such as public works." It currently is offering courses in dealing with WMD response, with concentrations in technical and HazMat response and incident command.

FEMA's Emergency Management Institute ( has been popular with a number of public works departments, including Oklahoma City's. Its Integrated Emergency Management course is a four-and-a-half day "exercise-based training activity" primarily aimed at elected and appointed local government officials. Some versions of the course involve events in generic communities, and some target specific communities.

Training at all three centers is free; transportation and lodging are picked up by the participants. "If you're not going through a training process at least every two years, you will miss something," says Oklahoma City's Brum.

"The mop-up guys"
Getting public works professionals to these centers has not been easy. People who run the country's water and wastewater plants—who fill its potholes, repair its bridges and wear overalls to work—tend not to see themselves as occupying the rarefied strata that include traditional first responders.

That surprises some people, like Paula Gordon, director of special projects of the research program in social and organizational learning at George Washington University. Gordon, who wrote "Infrastructure Threats and Challenges: Before and After September 11, 2001" for the American Society of Public Administration, posits that part of the problem may be a lack of public relations savvy within the public works community. "They're just not good at tooting their own horn."

Larry Lux agrees. "Generally speaking, the public works community needs to become more involved in the political process," he says. "We need to take stronger and more affirmative advocacy positions, both locally and on the Hill. It's the only way our voices will be recognized. I've made a career out of [trying to get attention for public works], but I'm only one voice. We need thousands of voices."

Lux, president of Plainfield, Ill.-based Lux Advisors, Ltd., which counsels communities on emergency and disaster management, is a member of APWA's Emergency Management Committee and an adjunct faculty instructor at FEMA's Emergency Management Institute. He calls public works employees "the mop-up guys."

"People are absolutely unaware of the importance of public works" in homeland protection, Lux says. "Public works is not thought of as a first responder. What we do isn't glamorous. Fire and law enforcement people arrive in big red vehicles with their sirens going. After they're finished, public works comes up in their little yellow trucks."

Lux insists that communities need to more seriously pursue homeland protection training opportunities for their public works employees. "Not much in that regard has changed since Sept. 11," he says. "The government is earmarking a lot of money for homeland security, but none of the language and none of the money is targeted at improving public works response and training."

In fact, although public works was never mentioned, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, seemed to target the profession in a recent backgrounder called "Meeting the Needs of America's First Responders." "From 1996 to 1999, the federal government was able to provide [WMD] response training to only 134,000 of the nation's 9 million first responders," the paper noted. It cited the problems of inadequate information regarding available training programs, expensive and inconvenient programs, and lack of coordination as issues that the federal government must address.

Fighting an out-of-date image
"Part of the problem," Gordon says, "is how 'homeland protection' is being defined. We need to expand the definition."

To some extent, that is happening. Dust from the World Trade Center still hung in the air as national concern over the safety of the country's water plants, highways and bridges was being ratcheted up.

Much of the early homeland security legislation focused on securing the nation's water supply and other "critical infrastructure." Additionally, in a March letter to APWA members, FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh noted that "at this time, perhaps more than at any other time, we realize the importance of public works infrastructure, facilities and services."

Currently, FEMA and APWA are ironing out the details of a Memorandum of Understanding that will provide the basis for a new cooperative effort between the two groups (the MOU was signed during APWA's Congress on September 22, 2002-Ed.). And APWA has been active in providing comments on proposed legislation and on budget items, according to Karen Bloodworth, Technical Services Program Manager with the organization.

Bloodworth points out that public works functions in emergency management are all-encompassing and include engineering, health and safety codes, roads and bridges, dams, canals, wastewater collection and treatment, electric generation and distribution, telephone service, garbage collection, debris removal and flood control. "Public works people are so involved in the whole emergency management process," says Gordon. "It's hard to fathom how they can be overlooked."

"When a disaster occurs, the first people in are law enforcement, fire, and medical personnel," Lux says. "After a time, it's all public works. The cleanup and restoration of the community is almost 100% public works. We are critical to first response. We need to make everyone understand that."

Originally published in Homeland Protection Professional magazine, July/August 2002. Copyright retained. Homeland Protection Professional was created to assist the American emergency response community in preparing for and responding to acts of domestic terrorism. For more information about Homeland Protection Professional, visit

Janet Ward is a freelance writer in Atlanta and the former editor of American City & County, a monthly magazine for local government leaders. She has a law degree from Woodrow Wilson College of Law and a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.