Public works and emergency management

By: Valérie Céré, RN, M.A., Disaster Anthropologist, Ottawa, Ontario and Bruce Kerr, M.A., Kerr & Associates Consulting, Victoria, British Columbia

When a disaster strikes, first responders play a crucial role in saving lives. Who are the first responders—police, firefighters, or medical services? If there are trees or debris on the road which prevent these first responders from accessing the site, who would you call? The role of public works professionals during an emergency may sound obvious, but they are rarely referred to as first responders.

Valérie Céré gave a presentation to the delegates of the 2013 Canadian Risk & Hazards Network (CRHNet) Symposium in Regina, Saskatchewan, in November. The CRHNet is an interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial network of researchers, academics and practitioners working to enhance the understanding of emergency management in all dimensions and to help build Canadian capacity to deal effectively with threats and consequences from all hazards. The purpose of her presentation was to explore how we can involve public works professionals more in emergency management planning and recognize their vital role as first responders.

Public works is not just about picking up garbage, cleaning up the roads, and maintaining the waterworks. It is also about public safety and prevention. The role of public works is to maintain and ensure the security of waterworks systems, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, the removal of debris and waste, the maintenance of roads and bridges, deicing and snow removal in order to avoid pile-ups and accidents. They need to keep tabs on and know weather patterns in order to do a timely job, but most importantly it is to ensure a safe route for emergency vehicles. If they fail in these activities, the community’s physical infrastructure and public safety are negatively impacted. Public works professionals’ strength in emergency management is that they know their community by heart.

One comment imagined by the audience was that, “The people doing the overall planning for the community, perhaps should not be with the first responders. Quite often the community’s land use planning rests with the planning and public works departments. Because of their planning, it is possible that a lot of disasters will have disappeared because they were avoided ahead of time. First responders, on the other hand, focus their planning on response activities, and have very little to do with land use planning. I am not saying that first response does not belong, but right now first response is prime when you look around at most emergency managers, so maybe it would make more sense to bring some of your emergency management people right from the public works side or the planning side as opposed to just first response side.”

Valérie’s response to this was that she felt that first responders have to be at the table before or while the community is doing the planning. She pointed out that she was not advocating a shift of emergency management responsibility from one department to another but to be inclusive in emergency management preparations and have many departments involved in the community’s preparation, with each addressing what they are best at: to be more collaborative, to try to break down the silos and have a general team of disciplines that think about emergencies or disasters, establish networks, and have the conversations ahead of time. “You have to know who your partners are before a disaster; you have to train together; and you have to exercise together. What I’m talking about is multidisciplinary meetings trying to figure it out together, not just public works, not just firefighters, policemen or emergency medical technicians, but everybody together. It’s more of a partnership and trying to have a team of people where one of the persons on the team is from public works.”

Some of the issues that came to light from the presentation and the discussion that followed include:

Networks have to be formed between agencies before a disaster strikes.

Training needs to be available for everyone involved in emergencies. Most of the problems lie in small rural and remote communities where training opportunities are not readily available to those who need it. Another aspect of the training is that we must move away from a response-based focus on emergency management to one of resilience based.

The Québec public works association is trying to get the knowledge to rural communities and to do emergency management training specifically for public works, but not all Canadian provincial chapters of APWA are approaching this issue in a uniform manner. Some chapters have emergency management subcommittees, others don’t.

Provincial engineering societies and associations would be good partners for public works departments.

Associations like the American Public Works Association where there is an Emergency Management Committee are a great resource, but the issues in Canada are different than those in the United States. APWA is in the process of developing a Canadian Emergency Management Subcommittee to address Canadian issues.

Also, different groups with different strengths need different training to build on those strengths. Public works professionals practice the four pillars of emergency management on a day-to-day basis but typically only has response-based training to draw on (ICS, etc.). What they don’t have is training on setting up programs for resilience for their areas of responsibility.

Public works directors are concerned about emergency management and are trying figure out what their role is and how they can get more involved in their community’s emergency management planning and preparedness.

Valérie Céré, RN, has a Master of Arts in Disaster Anthropology. She is a board member of the CRHNet and acts as a liaison with the APWA Québec Chapter (ATPA) where she leads their Public Works Emergency Management Committee. You can reach her by e-mail at and have access to her publications through her LinkedIn profile at

Bruce Kerr has a Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management and is now an emergency management consultant after working for 35 years in public works. He can be reached at