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First Responder – Who Makes the Cut?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keith Reester
November 5, 2018

Over the past few years, we have seen a growing number of large-scale disasters in the United States: hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and they all seem to be growing in scale. When most people think of the term “first responder” their thoughts turn immediately to police and fire departments, but there are others that are as critical. If we look across the gamut of natural disasters in the United States, there are a few things that are consistent: immediate needs to secure life safety for residents, providing shelter for those displaced, and disruption of utilities and roads limiting access and impacting public health. Hurricanes and floods exemplify these types of events.

Usually, in the first 24-36 hours of an event, life safety is of the utmost importance and leadership in these events falls to public safety functions in police and fire.

After the initial impact period in most disasters the on the groundwork turns to others, ordinarily public works. The sandbagging, cleaning up debris to open roads, restoring critical electric, water and sewer utilities all fall into this category. Traditionally the public does not see these professionals as first responders. In fact, in some events, police and fire need public works even to access the core of the disaster. In some events, public health agencies may become the lead. The partnership of all legs of the team is essential to dealing with emergency management in a consistent, nimble and effective deployment.

On the federal level, the role of public works as a first responder was codified in when President George W. Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5), Management of Domestic Incidents in 2003 stating that all agency types must work to operate under the same National Incident Management System (NIMS).

In FEMA’s words:

“NIMS is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines. It is intended to: • Be applicable across a full spectrum of potential incidents, hazards, and impacts, regardless of size, location or complexity.”

The NIMS system is helpful across the broad spectrum of incident response as it helps define event response structures and also seeks to break through the jargon often associated with each professional area. As an example, ask each a police, fire, and public works incident team leader what a “truck” is, and you will get a range of answers, this is a micro example of the needs during an emergency operation.

A national system to train, communicate and organize for first response and continuing disaster operations is an excellent idea, but in practice, the public sense of a “first responder” has direct impacts on how we prepare for the inevitable disasters in every community. The concept of who is a first responder significantly impacts the commitment of resources including people and funds to equip, train and exercise for response; this differentiator has critical impacts on the ground during events.

When local, state and federal funds are dispersed for training and work on developing disaster operations plans the first funds go to fire and police, often these funds find public works as a secondary player. What is also critically important is the time to train and exercise for events large and small. Police and fire departments are expected to spend a certain percentage of time doing disaster preparation and also importantly exercising, both tabletop and field, for event response. This expectation of training and exercising often does not exist in the eyes of executives and elected officials for public works responders. I have witnessed elected officials state, “We can’t have those public works guys doing training exercises for disasters, we need the roads paved!”

One other critical component that nearly always goes unaddressed during and after disaster events for public works professionals is mental health. Accredited police and fire departments are expected to have mental health services available for their teams; this expectation does not extend to public works. Team members are faced with the psychological stresses of supporting those that may have lost everything, many times their neighbors or friends, the public workers first responders are often the ones that carry that burden as people see their destroyed home for the first time or assist them in transportation to a sheltering facility. These incidents have direct impacts on those first responders as well.

There is a story in the public works community about responding to plane crash, fire and police were first on the scene while public works secured the area and prepared for the work to reopen the impacted roads and utilities. Amidst this work, a call came into the public works department to send surveyors to the site as they were the only agency with staff to complete this type of work. The on-the-ground task was to survey the site for future investigation, not just the plane but locations of bodies, this would impact anyone. The public works personnel were denied access to the on-site mental health services at the incident because they were not police or fire first responders.

What this example enunciates is the commitment that is needed by local governments to see their public works teams as first responders too and making room for the commitment to fund and support emergency operations planning and exercising. Exercising and training must be done in concert with public safety, public health and non-profit services to most effectively prepare for that inevitable time when disaster will strike. A commitment to all legs of the response framework will make any city or town more resilient to disaster, stronger in the face of response and assuredly a quicker recovery.


Author: Keith Reester is the Public Works Director in Littleton, Colorado and also provides consulting services across the country to public and private sector partners. More of Keith’s writing is available in his book “Define, Measure, Create – Inspiring a Leadership Journey,” available on Amazon and other platforms. Keith is reachable at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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