During a weather emergency like a blizzard, flood, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, the focus is often on electric utilities and their ability to maintain and restore power. But the status of water utilities during an emergency is just as critical to the safety and health of residents, said David Travers, the director of the Water Security Division at the U.S. EPA.
"For whatever reason, within the emergency planning community the water sector is not really recognized," explained Travers. "But a community without water resources cannot function."
A lack of coordination between emergency response teams and water utilities can cause serious issues during a weather emergency.
During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it was reported that many water system employees had difficultly accessing their own infrastructure to address issues caused by the storm. Emergency response teams surrounded flooded areas with road blocks to protect the public, unintentionally keeping out water utility workers trying to do their jobs. Certain damaged areas were restricted and required credentials that water utility workers hadn't procured in advance. This delayed critical repairs, said Travers.
Water utilities are also often overlooked when considering which institutions need immediate assistance after a weather emergency. Power outages can significantly impact the water sector, leaving them desperate for fuel supply for generators to maintain operations. Response teams focus on "high priority" sites first during an emergency, and Travers believes water utilities aren't always included on that list. This effort is not malicious but due mostly to ignorance regarding the importance of water, he said.
"When you talk about emergency response, it is often in the hands of firefighters and the police department, and they have their own sense of what sectors are priorities," said Travers. "They may call a hospital to see what they need, but because water is taken for granted, they may not contact the water system to see what they need. But without clean water, that hospital is not going to be able to maintain normal operations at all."
The EPA and other organizations are currently working to educate emergency response organizations on the importance of making water utilities a top priority. But it is also important that each water utility take initiative prior to a weather emergency to prepare and protect itself. Here are five critical steps every water utility should take before disaster strikes.
1) Lobby For Emergency Support
In every community there are local and state emergency planning committees. Water utilities should not only have up-to-date contact information for these organizations, but they should contact them now and begin to establish a relationship, said Travers. Contact information for emergency response teams can be found on the FEMA's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) website. At the local level, water utilities need to set up clear lines of communication with city police and fire departments. Utilities need to communicate in detail what they may need during an emergency. A water emergency document released by the EPA recommends that utilities notify law enforcement and local emergency response teams that water staff may have to remain onsite and could be trapped at the plant during an emergency, and should be checked in on. Contacts should also be established locally to request emergency water supply, if necessary. Water sector employees should also communicate with emergency response teams about what kind of assistance they can provide to the response teams and the community as a whole during an emergency.
At the state level, multiple water utilities may need to work together for change, recommended Travers. "We would want the utilities to let these emergency response organizations know that the water sector needs to be a priority," he said. "Utilities really need to lobby for representation in discussions about how statewide emergencies should be handled to include their needs."
2) Evaluate Infrastructure, Equipment, And Supplies
Now is the time to make sure everything inside and outside the plant can survive a major weather emergency. Pump and lift stations in particular can be impacted by a weather event. Emergency power systems should be in place at all critical stations, explained Travers. Flooding can threaten a pump or lift station.
"If a pump station or lift station is in an anticipated flooding area, there are ways to harden that facility by elevating it or ensuring the pumps can operate underwater," said Travers. "Make sure electrical components of that station are safeguarded. We've had utilities that have constructed walls around their system to keep water out."
Regularly test backup lights, generators, backup chemical feeders, and all pumps and motors. It is also important to verify that spare pumps, motors, and other necessary spare parts are available. Emergency electrical generators can be a big help, but they should not be stored in flood-prone areas of the facility. Dry chemicals should always be stored off the floor in a dry room that is protected against flooding and water from floors, walls, and ceilings.
3) Educate Employees
During an emergency, not all water employees may be able to get the plant. To prepare for this possibility, the EPA recommends that all essential personnel are trained to shut down and start up the system. Also determine what each staff member's roles and responsibilities will be in case of an emergency.
"Outline a plan for who will do what," said Travers. "A utility needs to learn how to be self-sufficient for a few days following an event."
4) Team Up With Other Utilities
Utilities should rely on each other, said Travers.
"It is important to create a mutual aid agreement with other utilities, so if for whatever reason you need personnel or equipment, you can share," he said.
The EPA also recommends that wastewater and drinking water facilities pre-arrange where they can borrow or lease heavy equipment needed to make repairs to the water system if necessary during an emergency. This could include piping, valves, chemical feed-line tubing, and hydrants.
5) Create A Customer Communication Plan
It is critical to get an understanding of how to best reach ratepayers in a crisis, prior to a dangerous weather event.
"You should have a communication plan that is based on how people communicate now: social media, text, web, etc.," Travers recommended. "But there also needs to be preparation for alternative communication methods for when those avenues aren't available don't exist. That could be creating flyers or getting the local police to assist in spreading the news."
Documents should be created in advance. The EPA recommends creating a "Boil Water Notice" in multiple languages. Need help? The EPA provides sample multilingual boil water notices. Documents outlining emergency disinfection of drinking water procedures should also be prepared for customers.
Learning From The Past
Most water utilities are already doing a good job of preparing for emergencies, said Travers. But there is always room for improvement, and facilities should not put off making the necessary changes.
"There are lessons learned after every incident," he said. "But that professional drive that utilities have to make sure everything is safe is evident even when things go wrong. People who work in the water sector have a strong sense of mission to provide for their communities."