On Jan. 11, an air valve on the waterline running on the east side of the Deception Pass Bridge failed. Without prompt resolve, pressure could build and the pipe could burst, leaving the City of Oak Harbor and the Navy Base without drinking water.
The first responder to the scene? A public works employee.
Hanging over the bridge, 180 feet in the air, employees with the City Public Works Department, partnering with the State Department of Transportation, were on the scene for about four hours until the valve was repaired, according to Public Works Director Steve Schuller.
“I get vertigo when I walk across the bridge,” Schuller said. “Nonetheless, you know, (I) hang across the bridge.”
Such efforts are not uncommon, Schuller said. Whether it’s ice, snow, flooding, windstorms or failure of sewer, drinking water, traffic signals and more, public works is on the frontlines of emergencies.
According to the American Public Works Association, following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush issued Presidential Policy Directive 8, officially recognizing public works as first responders. In 2019, the U.S. Senate passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 15, including public works in “the designation of October 28, 2019 as Honoring the Nation’s First Responders Day.” The National Incident Management System lists public works alongside police and fire management.
Police officers, paramedics and firefighters hold shifts around the clock. When an emergency happens, an alarm flares and they gear up and set off.
For public works employees, which hold regular office hours, it’s a bit different, Schuller said. But if 911 is called for storm damage or if a water main breaks in the middle of the night, emergency dispatchers summon an on-call public works employee just like any of the others.
The role of public works departments varies city to city and county to county. Oak Harbor’s divides into seven divisions – engineering, streets, solid waste, equipment (providing and servicing city vehicles including police and fire), wastewater, water and collections. In each of these divisions, Schuller said, emergencies have occurred and will occur.
In January last year, northbound winds, low barometric pressure and a king tide damaged properties along Windjammer Park. Public Works employees were some of the first and final responders to the scene, Schuller said, pushing the flooding back over the dike and preventing further damage.
Schuller said the 2003 presidential policy directive designating public workers as first responders was hardly a shift of duty, but more of a recognition. Public Works departments had been doing this work.
“Sometimes we joke we need better TV shows with public works,” Schuller said. “The police car and the sirens go on and it’s two in the morning and it’s a bad guy. A water main that is shooting up in the air doesn’t quite make as good TV, but I think it’s always been part of our DNA.”