The Public Sector Side of Facility Safety

The Public Sector Side of Facility Safety

Facilities Management and Public Works play a critical role as disaster site first responders, but it’s a role that’s not fully recognized.

If we compare the definitions of Facility Management and Public Works, we find many similar responsibilities. Facility Management is a professional management discipline focused on the efficient and effective delivery of logistics and other support services related to real property and buildings. Public Works is the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for cities and state governments to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the health, welfare, and safety for its employees and citizens. 

The National Response Framework (NRF) is a guide to how the private sector and local, state and the nation responds to all types of disasters and emergencies. It is built on scalable, flexible, and adaptable concepts identified in the National Incident Management System to align key roles and responsibilities.  

One of these roles includes the management and response activities to provide company, local and state support required under the Stafford Act. This is administration of Emergency Support Functions 3 (ESFs): Activities within the scope of this ESF 3 include conducting pre- and post-incident assessments of public works and infrastructure; executing emergency contract support for life-saving and life-sustaining services; providing technical assistance to include engineering expertise and construction management; contracting and real estate services; and providing emergency repair of damaged public infrastructure and critical facilities. 

The private sector owns and/or operates a large proportion of the nation’s infrastructure and is a partner and/or lead for the rapid restoration of infrastructure-related services. Through ongoing planning and coordination, the private sector provides critical details for incident action planning and decision-making processes during an incident. Private-sector mutual aid and assistance networks facilitate the sharing of resources to support response. 

 Some of the responsibilities include: 

  • Providing emergency repairs of damaged public infrastructure and critical facilities, 
  • Activities include providing public information, contributing to situational awareness, establishing response teams, leveraging technological tools, training and exercising with partners,
  • Provides assessment and emergency response support for water, wastewater treatment facilities,
  • Provides assistance in the monitoring and stabilization of damaged structures and the demolition of structures designated as immediate hazards to public health and safety,
  • Provides technical assistance in engineering expertise and construction management,
  • Provides coordination, response, and technical assistance for rapid stabilization and reestablishment of critical services,
  • Provides personnel to assist in damage assessment, structural inspections, 
  • Provide “First on the Scene” first aid services until the ambulances arrives. 

Who’s a First Responder? 

Facilities Services and Public Works were officially added as First Responders in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They also serve as First Responders and part of the agency’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) if activated. Also, in November 2017, the American Public Works Association Board of Directors approved the adoption of a national “Public Works First Responder” symbol for use throughout North America to identify public works personnel and acknowledge their federally mandated role as first responders. 

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. Public Works and Facilities Services are considered part of the official ranks of First Responders by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guidelines for disaster workers since 2005. 

During the initial stages of an incident, all first responders have dissimilar roles to play but they all one thing in common: all deal with specific activities and all activities face specific hazards. The Safety Officer evaluates these hazards and makes sure that safeguards are in place. If not, additional safeguards are needed. 

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

A Vital Role Throughout 

FEMA states that Public Works and Facilities Services professionals play a vital role in all phases of emergency management. They provide valuable input during the planning process, supply critical services during response and recovery operations, and help to reduce the risk of future losses by serving as the community’s champion for mitigation projects. In some communities and private sector companies, public work/facility services are the lead agency for any emergency event, and the director of public works may also be the director of emergency management. Participation by public works is an integral part of any jurisdiction’s emergency planning efforts. 

Interagency coordination, communication, and collaboration are vital to achieve the most effective, efficient response possible. Public works is one of the first responders on the scene when a disaster strikes. During response efforts, public works professionals perform essential services like clearing roadways, assessing damage, removing debris, restoring utilities, and managing emergency traffic. They also provide technical support to other responders, such as supplying water for fire suppression or equipment for search and rescue operations. 

Facility Services and Public Works plays a predominant role during the recovery period by continuing damage assessment, cleanup, and restoration of services. In the year following Hurricane Katrina, public infrastructure projects in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana totaled over $4.8 billion. In those states that year, public works officials completed 1.3 million housing inspections and removed nearly one hundred million cubic yards of debris– enough to fill 20 Superdomes.  

On average, 68 percent of the funding awarded by the Federal government for major disaster declarations each year is used for debris removal, roads and bridges, water control facilities, public buildings, and public utilities. Before, during, and after an emergency, public works is the lifeline for the community or Business Continuity Plan.  

Life and death scenarios consistently arise, yet public works first responders carry out their responsibilities with the utmost professionalism. It is time that all private sector and state governments recognize the role Facility Management and Public Works play as First responders in the Prevention, Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery of workplace emergencies.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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