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Public Works Mutual Aid: Making it work

Keith Watson
Assistant Public Works Director
Village of Bartlett, Illinois
Chairman, DuPage County Public Works Mutual Aid Steering Committee
Presenter, 2007 APWA Congress

So you've got your mutual aid agreements in place, and now you have the authority to help in a disaster. You've also got your resource list updated, so you know all of the equipment available to you. Now what? How will you respond? How will requests for resources be made? Who will track those resources? How will you provide the efficient, effective public works response that will be needed during a disaster? These were some of the questions facing public works agencies in DuPage County, Illinois when the County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) asked a group of local public works officials to develop a mutual aid response plan.

The DuPage Public Works Mutual Aid (PWMA) Planning Committee began meeting in the spring of 2004. Our committee was made up of local public works directors and supervisors, along with a representative from County OEM. Working with OEM was an essential element in the development of our response plan. The public works community had equipment and trained people ready to deal with any public works task that we would face in a disaster. What we didn't have was a working knowledge of emergency response, something second nature to OEM. With their help we were able to develop a plan that integrated our response with the responses of other emergency agencies.

We determined early on that in order for our plan to be acceptable, any response we provided had to be organized and sustainable. An organized response requires getting a stricken community the resources they need when they need them, no more, no less. We can't get the job done if we don't send enough people and equipment. If we send too many people the extra resources become a burden on the stricken community. In addition, responding communities might be less likely to provide mutual aid if they believe those resources won't be used. Providing a sustainable response means being able to provide resources for as long as they are needed. Being sustainable not only requires an efficient, organized response, but also requires access to as many public works resources as possible. In addition to providing an organized and sustainable response, the plan had to be NIMS compliant.

The response plan we developed built on our existing mutual aid agreements. Those agreements between the County and individual municipalities authorized mutual aid. The response plan doesn't change that agreement, only specifies how that mutual aid will be provided. The responsibilities of each participant during a disaster are all spelled out. A stricken community is required to provide an operations officer and staging area coordinator to direct the responders. This integrates our response into the incident command structure. Agencies that respond are required to bring specific equipment and manpower. County OEM is required to maintain resource lists and to deploy and track resources during disasters. OEM also provides interoperable radios and identification placard for responders.

The DuPage PWMA Plan uses task forces and response teams to provide the organized, sustainable public works response. We base our responses on missions and tasks that need to be accomplished. Once the plan is activated, requests for resources are made to DuPage County OEM. Rather than requesting specific pieces of equipment, a stricken community would request task forces for specific missions. Task forces are public works resources grouped to perform specific public works tasks such as road clearing or flood mitigation. Each task force is self contained, has a task force leader, and comes with all of the equipment and personnel to perform that task. This simplifies the request process for the stricken community, effectively into a "one call" system.

Each task force is comprised of response teams from different communities. The plan doesn't ask any single community to provide all of the manpower and equipment for a task force. Response teams are deployed from several different communities and are grouped into task forces at the staging area. The task forces are then issued identification placards and interoperable radios before being deployed to the incident area. Using response teams spreads the impact of the response over several communities. It also allows smaller communities to participate in the response, giving the mutual aid system access to more resources and increasing sustainability.

As plan development moved forward, we realized the plan would require oversight to keep it going. To that end our planning committee transitioned into a steering committee, whose mission is to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the plan. Our steering committee has two standing subcommittees, the training committee and the exercise committee. The training committee develops training and educational curriculum focused on roles, responsibilities and concepts of the plan. The exercise committee works with DuPage County OEM to develop and coordinate PWMA involvement in disaster exercise planning and evaluation.

The DuPage County Public Works Mutual Aid Plan was put into operation in March of 2005. We now have access to the resources of over 40 different member agencies, including nearly 100% of the municipalities in the county. Our training and exercise efforts have improved our knowledge of emergency management, making our responders more prepared to function in the incident command environment. We are now confident the public works community in DuPage County can provide the effective, efficient response that will be needed in a disaster.

Keith Watson will give a presentation on this topic at the APWA Congress & Exposition in San Antonio. His presentation, entitled "Public Works Mutual Aid—Making It Work," takes place on Tuesday, September 11, at 10:00 a.m. He can be reached at (630) 837-0811 or kwatson@vbartlett.org.

The complete DuPage County PWMA Plan, including mutual aid agreements, operational rules, task force and response team descriptions, and steering committee rules is available in a PDF format. Members can e-mail Keith Watson at kwatson@vbartlett.org for a copy of the plan. Please put "PWMA Request" in the subject line.