From The Editor | November 9, 2017

How To Plan For Utility Disasters

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online

How To Plan For Utility Disasters

It’s true that you can’t prepare for everything and that at water and wastewater utilities, nearly anything can quickly turn into an emergency. So, it might stand to reason that planning for emergencies in this space is an exercise in futility.

But there is almost certainly value to be found in preparing for emergency in general, even if a utility could never troubleshoot for each specific possibility. When something unexpected does happen, it would be helpful to know where inefficiencies lie and how employees will respond.

At least, that was the thinking from Indiana American Water, which provides water and wastewater services for 130,000 people. The utility held a mock disaster scenario last month to test its mettle.

“The idea to hold a disaster exercise for utility staff and first responders is part of an ongoing effort to ensure operational readiness in case of an emergency and a need to test our emergency programs and systems in advance of an emergency crisis situation,” said Craig Murphy, senior specialist in health, safety, and operational risk for Indiana American Water. “It is vitally important to understand how emergency plans will function in real time so that we can validate procedures and strengthen areas of need.”

The utility imagined that a chlorine tank fell from a delivery tank and leaked 2,000 pounds of toxic gas within 10 minutes. During this fictional scenario, the fictional truck driver and a fictional utility employee were killed instantly and many others were taken to local hospitals. It was a scenario that could have affected residents within a 1.3-mile radius of the utility’s Borman Park treatment facility.

“We chose a chlorine release scenario not only to test our emergency management program at Indiana American Water, but also as an ongoing test of our process safety management and risk management plan programs, which are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. EPA because of the highly hazardous nature of chlorine,” Murphy said. “It is a relatively standard scenario we use to try to simulate the worst-case scenario for a chlorine release. Sometimes, we add little wrinkles to the scenario such as different weather conditions, concurrent hazardous material spills, or employee medical emergencies related to the chlorine release to further test our response abilities and simulate what could really occur.”

Indiana American Water coordinated with real-life emergency crews and local coroner’s staff, who waited at a staging area before hazmat teams allowed them to enter the Broman Park plant and rescue those who were fictionally injured or remove those fictionally killed.

“Getting emergency crews and coroner’s staff involved was important because these are the people who will be doing the majority of the work in a large chlorine release scenario like this one,” said Murphy. “We want them to be able to test out their response capabilities as well, in order to get their employees familiar with the unique attributes of our facilities, our location, and any special challenges they may have in responding to an emergency of this nature.”

Meanwhile, at another Indiana American Water facility in nearby Gary, IN, employees served as emergency response coordinators, notifying the necessary regulatory agencies and nearby businesses, schools, and hospitals. A local paper reported that while this test was going on, a real-life water main break occurred, giving utility employees a real taste of what challenges an unforeseen emergency can bring.

Despite the added stress, the utility thinks its staff did an admirable job handling the faux emergency, even if it did identify ways to improve.

“Our employees responded and performed wonderfully in the exercise,” Murphy said. “As with any emergency response program, communication is one of the more important pieces, and because emergency response involves so many moving parts and so many vital communications between the organizations, there is always room to improve. That was the case in this exercise as well.”

When asked about the costs of conducting the drill vs. its benefits in improving emergency response, Murphy did not provide specifics on time or dollar investments, but he said that the benefits will always outweigh the costs. And he passed on some advice for other utilities that may be hoping to invest in emergency preparedness as well.

“I would recommend that other utilities that are interested in running a similar exercise start planning early,” he said. “I would also recommend tapping into your community resources for help in planning the event. Know your community and who may be affected by an emergency of this type… Finally, keep your emergency plan a living document. Life changes all the time and your emergency plans should reflect that as well.”

Image credit: "DSCF0448," Nicollette, 2008, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/