By David Geary

EVENT: Emergency management training

WHO: American Public Works Association's Chicago Metro Chapter – Lake County Branch

RESULTS: Through classroom and in-the-field training, 30 Chicagoland agencies learn how to work together during a disaster.

For decades, neighboring police, paramedic, and fire agencies have practiced how they'll help each other during emergencies, assigning roles and responsibilities and ensuring that their employees are able to communicate when traditional mechanisms break down. As a result, these first responders coordinate, communicate, and interact with one another very well.

Though also first responders, the public works discipline hasn't as pro-actively organized response efforts — ironic, given that severe weather, floods, and major equipment malfunctions often require the response of public works teams. While oftentimes departments train to respond to big emergencies, these smaller events are much more common than an event like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Plus, increasingly tight budgets make it difficult for communities to acquire enough resources to respond to unusually large requests or events.

In reality, public works should spend time working within their own organizations and with other local, regional, and state responders. By discussing and practicing emergency plans, they can better serve their communities and save money by not having to invest in elaborate backup resources or additional equipment.

Established in 2008 by a committee of volunteers, the Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network ( maintains a network of agencies that provide assistance when a member is confronted with a disaster. Open to any governmental agency that performs public works functions, the network protects both requesting and responding members from liability.

Closely modeled after the long-standing and successful police and fire mutual aid organizations, this public works network provides both an easy membership application and a simple process for calling for assistance. Member agencies pay yearly dues: $100 for those serving 15,000 or less, $250 for 15,001 to 75,000, and $500 for more than 75,000.

To prepare for a situation that would require an agency to call for assistance, public works professionals need to plan and practice together — to properly utilize, credential, dispatch, and track personnel and resources. These issues, and more, were addressed during a day-long simulation hosted by the American Public Works Association (APWA)'s Chicago Metro Chapter – Lake County Branch.

In the classroom

In early fall, representatives from 30 agencies in the Chicagoland area gathered to discuss issues and challenges that may arise while responding to a disaster. Held at the Lake County DOT facility in Libertyville, Ill., members of the local APWA branch launched the training with a tabletop exercise simulating a tornado touchdown.

In the scenario, neighboring agencies would be asked to help open roads, clear debris, maintain water and sewer operations, and respond to fire and police requests. Participants were broken into five groups to answer some basic — and some more challenging — questions.

Group 1: Monitoring weather and making notifications —

  • Does your department have written procedures for this type of emergency?
  • What is the process for monitoring severe weather in your community? If that task doesn't belong to public works, at what point is the department notified and how? Who is notified first? If that position can't be reached, who's contacted next? And next?
  • At what point do you recall staff or request assistance from other agencies within your municipality? Who's responsible for making that decision? How much is he/she authorized to request? (Is there a spending limit or other restrictions?)
  • How will the department communicate with other agencies (i.e., your emergency operations center, fire, police, etc.)?
  • Group 2: Damage assessment and setting priorities —

  • After an incident, what agency or individual is responsible for assessing the damage?
  • What type of training do these individuals have?
  • What agency is responsible for determining what has to be done and in what order?
  • Group 3: Requesting assistance and receiving aid —

  • At what point does your department request assistance?
  • Where do you seek assistance (private contractors, neighboring agencies, mutual aid contacts), and in what order?
  • Who's responsible for making that call?
  • Once contacted, how do assisting agencies know where to report? If multiple agencies are being called on, how do you organize the group that arrives to help?
  • Once help arrives, how do you deploy them? How do you communicate with them?
  • Group 4: Assigning tasks and getting work completed —

  • How are assignments given out? How do you ensure that the correct equipment and qualified personnel are sent to complete a particular task?
  • What are the considerations for working with private contractors? How are purchase orders to be handled? Do you have established pricing and supply agreements specifically for emergencies?
  • How are large piles of debris handled? Are there pre-established holding areas? How will it be disposed of, particularly if it contains toxic materials?
  • Group 5: Personnel rehabilitation and recovery —

  • What about responders' personal needs; i.e., food and water, lodging, rest periods, sleeping schedules?
  • Who coordinates and/or pays for these needs?
  • By answering the above questions and sharing information about their own plans, attendees identified best practices and improvements that could be incorporated into their operations.

    Then the training transitioned from the theoretical to the practical.

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