Public Works – A Partner and First Responder

In July, APWA reached out to IAFC leaders regarding their plans to launch its Public Works as First Responders campaign. We met with them to learn more about the effort. They assured us that public works directors will discuss this with their local municipalities and local organizations. We asked APWA to write an article for On Scene, summarizing the campaign’s intent and purpose and how it may affect fire departments. Fire service leaders are encouraged to contact their local public works director for more information and be actively engaged in the discussion of how this designation will be used and addressed in your jurisdiction. – Mark Light, IAFC CEO and Executive Director


In November 2017, the board of directors of the American Public Works Association (APWA) passed a motion to launch a campaign to promote Public Works as First Responders. So how did this come to be?

Recently, APWA developed and approved a new strategic plan involving all of our stakeholders in the development. This plan will guide our association into the future. Our vision is “advancing quality of life for all.” Our mission is to “support those who operate, improve, and maintain public works and infrastructure through advocacy, education and member engagement.”

Two of our strategic goals focus on serving as the voice for public works and showing the value of public works to communities throughout North America. Why is this important? Much like firefighters and police, those who work in public works do not do what they do for recognition and kudos – although it is always nice when they are received. To this end, APWA has taken it upon itself to be the voice of public works and share with the public in the United States and Canada the value of public works. One of the many important roles of public works is to serve as a first responder.

In 2003, George W. Bush, through a Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-8), declared that:

The term “first responder” refers to those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers as defined in section 2 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. 101), as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel (such as equipment operators) that provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations.

For APWA, it is not enough to just be called a first responder. We have embraced this title and realize it is important to us that we engage as first responders since we are responsible for emergency management and protecting, operating and maintaining critical infrastructure throughout the U.S.

Public works is charged with different duties during emergency situations than are firefighters; our skills, tools and professional experiences complement those of our first-responder partners.

I have been told by both firefighters and police that they would have great difficulty getting to an emergency scene if the roads have not been cleared of snow, ice or debris.

Public works and firefighters work hand-in-hand in many communities. For example, last year, two days after the Thomas fires had stopped burning, I was taken into the hills in Ventura, California, by the interim public-works director and the fire department’s battalion chief. The battalion chief turned to the interim public works director, as we looked at the devastation and impending mudslides, and said, “We put out the fire, but now you and your team are on next to deal with the potential mudslides.”

Another way APWA members work with partners in emergency preparedness, response and recovery is by fully engaging and serving on many committees and task forces within nongovernmental organizations and government agencies, such as:

  • Emergency Management Assistance Compact – The American state-to-state mutual-aid system established under PL 104-321.
  • Stafford Act Coalition – A Washington-based coalition of associations and organizations dealing with federal-level responses to disaster mitigation, recovery and relief.
  • National Homeland Security Consortium – Supported by the National Emergency Management Association, consisting of 21 national organizations representing local, state and private emergency-response professionals.
  • SAFECOM – Managed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications. Through collaboration with emergency responders and elected officials across all levels of government, SAFECOM works to improve emergency-responders’ emergency-communication interoperability across local, regional, tribal, state, territorial and international borders and with federal-government entities.
  • Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Incident Management – Consisting of a planned and coordinated multidisciplinary process to detect, respond to and clear traffic incidents so that traffic flow may be restored as safely and quickly as possible.
  • Public Safety Advisory Committee – Assisting the First Responder Network Authority in carrying out its duties to build, deploy, operate and maintain the FirstNet network. The current Committee consists of 42 representatives from associations and organizations from all disciplines of public-safety responders as well as local, state, territorial, tribal and federal government.
  • FirstNet – The first high-speed, nationwide, wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. The FirstNet network provides a single, interoperable platform for emergency and daily public-safety communications.

Lastly, as part of the Public Works as First Responders campaign, APWA has launched a new public works symbol. The Public Works First Responder symbol uses familiar colors – orange, black and white – and a design reminiscent of road-construction signs, safety cones and construction barrels.

By displaying the symbol wherever appropriate, public-works agencies can raise awareness among community members, government officials and other first responders about the critical role public works plays in emergency-management efforts. Public-works directors that I have spoken with have shared with me that they have sought approval to use the symbol from their city managers, administrators, mayors and council and that other department heads such as fire chiefs and police chiefs have embraced this new symbol as well.

I believe that there is widespread cooperation and respect among emergency first responders. APWA is committed to working with the IAFC to improve relations and cooperation among fire, police and public works to protect the safety, health and welfare of our communities.

Rest assured that the launch of the Public Works as First Responder campaign should in no way diminish the critical importance of firefighters, nor is it our intent to take away any funds or recognition that other first responders receive. Let’s work together to protect our communities everywhere.


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