Public Works Emergency Management - From Training to Reality

Although it may have taken a while to gain general acceptance, it is now usually understood that U.S. public works (PW) agencies play an important role before, during, and after most if not quite all emergency/disaster response operations. Much of the nation’s current emergency planning, in fact – at all levels of government – focuses on preparing for major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Fortunately, catastrophic events of that magnitude are few and far between.

Partly for that reason, the nation’s PW departments would benefit from spending considerably more time preparing for events that are much more likely to occur, particularly emergencies – e.g., severe weather, flooding, or even a major equipment malfunction – in which neighboring communities may be called upon to help one another. Planning ahead for such emergent needs is something that most PW departments do not currently do very well – or very often.

Without enough advance planning, and the follow-on training needed, PW agencies will usually be ill-equipped to deal with a major disaster when one does occur. Fortunately, though, most U.S. police, paramedic, and fire agencies have routinely planned, for many decades, to assist their neighboring communities. That planning has facilitated effective coordination, communications, and operational cooperation in countless times of sudden disaster.

PW agencies would be even better prepared for emergencies if they followed the model of these types of agencies. Being as effective and efficient as possible may also ease the burdens imposed by budget and/or service cuts recently imposed by many states and cities throughout the nation. In an era of ever-tightening budgets, it has become increasingly difficult for communities to obtain the funding and other resources needed to respond to major emergencies or other events above and beyond what might be considered normal expectations. By working more closely with their counterpart agencies in other communities – much like the fire service and police departments already do – PW departments not only can be better prepared to serve the community but also will save money that would otherwise have to be invested in back-up resources or additional equipment.

PW officials need to focus greater attention on planning and practicing together – not only to properly utilize, credential, dispatch, and track personnel and other resources, but also to better prepare the PW staff for a major disaster or other incident that would require them to call for assistance. Those issues, and more, were addressed during a Lake County (Illinois) Public Works Emergency Management training event on 16 September 2010.

Start With Tabletop Exercises

The training began with a tabletop exercise asking those in attendance some basic – and some challenging – questions about responding to an emergency. The tabletop training was based on a scenario in which a tornado had touched down in the local community. If that disaster had actually occurred, one or more neighboring PW agencies would have been requested to help open roadways for emergency access, clear debris, ensure the continuity of water and sewer operations, and help the local fire and police departments in a number of other ways.

During the discussion, participants worked in five small groups to focus on a specific aspect of the call-out, and to answer questions related to that subject. The group discussions focused on, among other duties and responsibilities: (a) monitoring the weather and issuing timely notifications; (b) carrying out damage assessments and setting priorities; (c) requesting assistance and receiving aid; (d) assigning numerous on-scene operational tasks and ensuring that work assignments were completed; and (e) carrying out and closely monitoring personnel rehabilitation and recovery operations.

By the end of the discussion, attendees were able to recognize a number of best practices in local communities and to identify certain areas needing improvement. Attendees were then encouraged to return to their respective communities and use the new knowledge they had acquired to suggest various ways to improve local planning.

Then Shift to Functional Exercises

After the tabletop exercise, the training transitioned to a functional exercise. When an agency is overwhelmed by demands for assistance and needs additional resources, many other departments are both ready and willing to provide whatever support they can. The requesting agency is then faced, though, with the task of managing up to 10 times the number of people and equipment items – or more – than it previously had been accustomed to dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

The functional exercise incorporated a Mutual-Aid Positioning and Deployment Plan “checklist” that had been developed to handle a relatively large deployment with minimal PW manpower. The lack of manpower could and would be offset, though, by calling on CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) volunteers. The CERT concept, which originated in the Los Angeles area many years ago, relies on the use of community volunteers who have gone through extensive emergency training. The CERT teams have in fact been successfully deployed for decades, in various communities throughout the nation, to provide invaluable assistance to emergency response units lacking the personnel needed to cope with major disasters.

Drill participants were asked to imagine that they had been notified that another local municipality had requested their assistance in responding to a severe storm. The “new” workers first reported to a staging area ready to answer the call to remove debris and to otherwise support local police and fire agencies as needed. The participants came to the disaster scene fully prepared for the exercise by bringing with them the vehicles and equipment that would be needed to cope with such an event.

In this neighbor-helping-neighbor exercise, the new arrivals and their vehicles were greeted at the requesting municipality as warmly as they would have been if arriving to assist at their own home agencies. The CERT members met the arriving crews and directed them to a staging area for check-in. During this part of the process, the resources available were reviewed, personnel credentials were documented, and identification cards were distributed.

After task-force leaders had been identified, work groups were assembled, radios and map books were assigned and distributed, and the work groups were made fully prepared to be dispatched into the surrounding community to carry out a simulated operational response. The task-force teams were directed to specific addresses or intersections and tracked along the way; when the teams reported that they had reached their assigned locations, they were asked to remain there for a short time and were then redeployed to another location within the same community.

Throughout the exercise, the crews used maps provided by the local municipality to navigate their way through unfamiliar local streets. They also used radios that had been borrowed from a stockpile that, during an emergency, could be accessed by a number of local groups in need. Communications are critical during such operations, of course, but a number of PW agencies are not always adequately prepared to speak to one another – vehicle to vehicle – under emergency mutual-aid conditions. The functional exercise enabled the teams participating not only to familiarize themselves with the radio-usage requirements of emergency situations but also to gain some much-needed experience in communicating and working with team members from other agencies.

Critiques, Credentials, Commitments & Mutual-Aid Networks

At the conclusion of the exercise, observers and participants critiqued the training and offered suggestions on ways to improve. The importance of accurate and comprehensive documentation of all aspects of the event was emphasized. The tracking of radio frequencies, use of specific radio call numbers and cell phone numbers, and the logging of personnel time and equipment hours are all very important. Taking the time needed to credential participants and to provide basic information such as emergency contacts is also very important and should be done both efficiently and expeditiously.

Several agencies left the drill with a new commitment to building their own “deployment kits” for use when needed. These kits would include such obvious (but sometimes ignored) equipment items as road signage, personnel sign-in forms, identification badges, and office supplies. Other agency representatives made plans to investigate the possibility of calling on community volunteer groups in their area – and to find out how to coordinate with them. The drill offered valuable insights into the opportunities and challenges that seeking assistance during a disaster can bring.

Several states already have formalized PW mutual-aid networks to develop and maintain a statewide network of PW-related agencies. The principal purpose of these networks is to provide mutual-aid response and recovery assistance to one another when confronted with a natural or manmade emergency or disaster. Participating agencies receive important and significant benefits, such as the protection of both the requesting and the responding agencies from liabilities that may be encountered in a disaster setting.

Following is a recommended PW Department emergency checklist of the initial steps required to determine the need for and use of teams from other jurisdictions. By following these steps, PW departments at all levels of government will be much better prepared if and when the time comes that they need to make the call – or to answer the call – for outside assistance:

  • Find out if a local mutual-aid network is already available;
  • Become familiar with the process of how county emergency management officials can assist local groups in times of need;
  • Contact the County Emergency Management Agency Office to begin gathering resources to assist in handling a disaster of any size; and
  • Participate in some type of emergency drill.

For additional information on any aspect of the training discussed above, call David Geary and/or Tracy Fessler at the Village of Wauconda Public Works Department (847-526-9610) or email them at either or

David Geary

David Geary is a certified emergency manager who for the past five years has served as director of public works for the Village of Wauconda, Illinois. He has over 30 years' experience in emergency response, safety, and disaster preparedness, and in previous positions served as assistant administrator for the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management and as director of emergency services at Universal Studios in California.

Tracy Fessler

Tracy Fessler has been assistant to the Wauconda director of public works during the past four years and previously served as administrator for the Southern California Emergency Services Association and as a high-school health and science teacher.



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