When a disaster strikes in your area — either manmade or natural — it can be a godsend to have the speedy assistance of other cities or counties in your state, thanks to a mutual aid network that specializes in this very action. Mark W. Doerfler, highway commissioner of Wauponsee Township, Ill., and secretary of the Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network, said he is not aware of other states that duplicate exactly what Illinois has.
“I know there are a lot of ‘local’ agreements that happen inside counties or multiple counties, but no statewide organizations,” said Doerfler, a resident of Morris, Ill., and a firefighter for the Morris Fire Protection District and also for the city of Champion, Ill. As he pointed out, “When a disaster such as a tornado happens, it usually affects a large area. If an organization has only a local agreement with its neighbor, and the neighbor is also affected, they will be unable to aid as they will have their own issues to deal with.” Doerfler added, “Another thing that we have found is when a community is impacted the employees of the first responder agencies are personally impacted and are unable to come to work; this limits the number of local responders that are available.”
Birth of a statewide mutual aid network
While local agreements are very important, there are many benefits to a statewide organization. According to Doerfler, “We have a long list of resources that are available to us from member agencies, and these range from labor assistance teams to heavy equipment. In a localized area, there may be only one or two pieces of specific equipment available, because IPWMAN is statewide, we can pull multiple pieces of equipment from the entire state, some of these resources are more available in larger member communities that we have agreements with.
“The other benefit to having a statewide organization is our mutual aid agreement. Our agreement is a legal document that is signed by the local agency as well as IPWMAN administration and outlines the dos and don’ts of the organization. This clearly outlines liabilities responsibilities. Because the agreement is a written agreement and is completed before a disaster strikes, it will assist in the stricken community in reimbursement if it becomes available.”
Since its founding in 2009, IPWMAN has grown to over 250 agencies. According to Barb Stiel, assistant to the director of the city of Urbana, its founding was not without its challenges. As the IPWMAN’s first secretary/treasurer who helped draft the organization, Stiel is the “go-to” person when the members need info on why, how and when things happened.
“One challenge was whether or not our organization should include public and private agencies or just include public agencies,” Stiehl said. “When the Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network was in its beginning stages of development, organizers were working with the American Water and Wastewater Association. AWWA includes both private and public agencies that maintain water and wastewater utilities. Some of the agencies involved in development of the mutual aid network were private utilities that dealt with water and/or wastewater only. Other agencies were public and dealt with all aspects of communities’ infrastructure; some public agencies did not maintain either water or wastewater utilities.
“In the end, two separate organizations were formed. IPWMAN was one of the organizations that formed as a mutual aid organization that consists of public agencies and responds to all public works-related emergencies. Illinois Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network is a water/wastewater utility mutual aid organization that consists of public and private water and wastewater utilities.”
According to Stiehl, another sticking point was reimbursement, with some arguing that the requesting agency should pay for assistance as they could not provide assistance to a requesting agency free of charge.
“Others argued that in the aftermath of an emergency, the requesting agency is seeking assistance because its resources have been depleted so seeking reimbursement would cause a burdensome hardship on the impacted agency,” said Stiehl. “The decision was made by IPWMAN that the first five days of assistance would be provided without reimbursement.”
Member agencies do pay dues that are based on the population size they serve. These dues help support the dispatch center, maintenance of resource lists, insurance and no personnel costs.
Doerfler noted the team learned a lot through various disasters. The Coal City, Ill., tornado on June 23, 2015, saw the involvement of the incident management team as a “neighbor going to help a neighbor” rather than as an IPWMAN officer.
“The day following the tornado, I rode around with the public works director of Coal City,” Doerfler said. “I had never seen anything so devastating. We took a map and tried to do a damage assessment. I started out very organized by classifying areas one, two or three. By the end I was marking the map with bad, really bad and ‘h… s…’ bad. Upon completion of the damage assessment, we reached out to the IPWMAN duty officer and requested some resources for the following day. We quickly broke the town down into zones and worked to clear those areas. By the third day of the cleanup, we had numerous resources from all over the state of Illinois at our command.
“We organized a command staff made up of the Coal City Public Works Director Darrell Olson; Jess Counterman from the Coal City manager’s office; Joe Cronin from the village of Lockport; Vince Kilcullen from the village of Algonquin; Roger Barrowman; and Chris Drey from the village of Shorewood. This group had never worked together, but pulled together to form an outstanding team. We managed resources and had the entire town cleaned up after 10 work days.”
Doerfler continued, “After calculating the equipment and man hours that IPWMAN supplied to Coal City, it was determined that IPWMAN provided a half of a million dollars in aid. We learned many lessons during this event and we had a contractor come in promising the world to Coal City. It didn’t take long to find out that this was not working to Coal City’s benefit, and we were forced to fire this contractor. We had an abundance of trees that needed to be dealt with. After two days of hauling brush debris, we had a huge pile and needed to hire a different contractor to bring in a tub grinder.”
He added, “One huge thing we initially forgot to do was to order Porta Potties for our workers; it takes more than 10 minutes to get a Porta Potty to a disaster. We had to manage volunteers who meant well but did not have the proper equipment and training to do the work. We had numerous contractors sign in with us but their only goal was to make money, not to help people in their time of need.”
Taking the first steps toward a statewide mutual aid network
“First, check with other mutual aid organizations to find out what worked and what didn’t work,” Stiehl advised. “In Illinois, the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System and Mutual Aid Box Alarm System were extremely helpful. Next, talk to your peers to receive feedback and to ask for volunteers to help organize the group. Our organization developed at the local and county level. With that said, it served our organization well to discuss our plans and goals with state agencies at the very beginning.
“Once your organization is officially formed, ask if you can present at state conferences, regional state meetings or any other venue where local public works, elected officials or other emergency management staff would be in attendance.”
Doerfler concluded by listing other cases he had been through and how “I can go on for hours about the things we learned and experienced during our work. Each event we have, we get better at doing what we do. The unfortunate part is that for us to get better, bad things happen to people”
The Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network’s website can be viewed at www.ipwman.org.