From The Editor | December 14, 2017

Creating An Emergency WARN-ing For Utilities

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online

Creating An Emergency WARN-ing For Utilities

As the threats to water and wastewater treatment plants posed by climate change and human-caused incidents continue to grow, utilities should be able to rely on one another for support.

The Water and Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), supported by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), puts that caring thought into action, bringing the nation’s utilities together to withstand emergencies together.

“Incidents that impact water utilities require specialized equipment and operational knowledge to recover these systems quickly and efficiently,” said Kevin Morley, a federal relations manager at AWWA, a utility membership organization that provides information tools, technical resources, and training. “The purpose of WARN is to provide a method whereby water and wastewater utilities that have sustained damages from a natural or manmade incident can obtain emergency assistance in the form of personnel, equipment, materials, and other associated services from other water and wastewater utilities.”

With at least 4,400 participating utilities scattered across the country, the hope is that short-term emergency services provided by fellow utilities can be delivered quickly in order to restore critical operations. Those that may be in a position to offer their help today could be in need of it tomorrow.

“Being a WARN participant is like taking out a nearly no-cost insurance policy,” Morley said of the cost-to-benefit ratio for participating utilities. “There are many tangible benefits for utilities, such as reduced cost to purchase and maintain backup portable generation capability, reduced revenue loss from water and wastewater services after an emergency, reduced costs of carrying contingency supplies and equipment, and reduced costs in responding to adverse incidents.”

Morley also cited some intangible benefits, like the real-life emergency training a utility’s staff would receive in helping a peer recover from disaster and the potential for improved public confidence.

WARN grew from a longstanding, communal approach to emergencies within the treatment sector, where federal help can sometimes be slow to materialize. The program grew from a mutual aid and assistance framework developed by California water systems following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and the East Bay Hills firestorm in 1991. Florida systems looked to mimic that program following three major hurricanes in 2004 and it grew into the national WARN program following the 2005 hurricane season that included Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

“Based on observed response actions by Florida water systems and sheer scale of the impacts, it was clear that the water sector needed a mechanism that could provide an organized response to facilitate a ‘utilities helping utilities’ process,” said Morley. “The need for water sector self-sufficiency became very clear during these events. Neither state nor federal resources are designed to recover water utility operations; only water systems have the skills, equipment, and resources necessary to expedite recovery following an incident.”

The efficacy of WARN was evident in Texas and Florida as the two states recovered from large-scale hurricanes this summer. The Texas chapter of the program, TXWARN, deployed crews from San Antonia to Port Aransas in less than 24 hours after Hurricane Harvey hit land. FlaWARN leveraged support from the national WARN program to provide aid for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, and utilities from Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina all deployed crews there.

That recent display of value led to an invitation for WARN officials from the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Environment.

“The request to testify was based on a recognition that the WARN program was very effective in responding to impacts to water systems in both Texas and Florida,” Morley said. “The testimony highlighted the value of the collaboration between Texas WARN and state emergency management and primacy agency.”

AWWA also used the opportunity to recommend federal changes that would better support the water sector during emergencies. Representatives recommended that the government create a single federal agency that is responsible for supporting the water sector during major incidents, as opposed to the current structure which has multiple agencies sharing that responsibility.

The success of WARN shows how powerful a program dedicated to water and wastewater recovery following emergencies can be. As the government mulls the creation of such a federal program, utilities will have to continue to rely on one another.

Image credit: "emergency!," Meiissa V, 2007, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/