The Department of Public Works: A Community Emergency Organization

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Disaster Research Center
Departments of public works have not been studied very extensively by social scientists. In over 200 studies of natural disasters summarized by the staff of the Disaster Research Center, there were only a handful of descriptions of the activities of such organizations. Yet public work departments are almost inevitably involved in any large-scale community emergency. There are several reasons for this lack of attention. First, the organization is not highly visible to the general public. Its personnel do not wear uniforms which stand out and its vehicles, even when displaying emblems, are not as conspicuous as police cars or fire trucks. Second, the department works with "things," not "people." Therefore, department personnel often go unnoticed as they perform their tasks. Only when a public facility or service breaks down, does the public works department become indirectly visible. Third, the organization often deals with very specific and highly technical engineering problems, which the general public does not understand and, furthermore, is unable to evaluate. Finally, many take the organization's responsibilities for granted. It is expected to function as it does in disasters. In the minds of many, this adds up to a highly invisible, not very colorful organization carrying out dull tasks which are not clearly understood by the public. Yet the role which the department plays in disasters is often of critical importance to the community -- preparing it for a possible disaster, engaging in emergency activities during the immediate post-impact period, and helping to restore it to a normal state. The department of public works (DPW)*, one of the community's largest organizations, normally has extensive resources and critical skills at its disposal which are necessary if the community is to cope successfully with a disaster.
public works, community, emergency operation, natural disaster