From The Editor | September 9, 2020

National Preparedness Month: A Good Time To Reassess Utility Resiliency

Pete Antoniewicz

By Pete Antoniewicz

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The Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center (WaterISAC) is reminding water utilities that September is National Preparedness Month in an effort to focus attention on steps they can take to improve resiliency and be prepared for a variety of challenges to their continuity of operations. Here are some industry guidelines and valuable links to help that happen.

Everyone Benefits From Being Prepared

The theme for 2020’s National Preparedness Month is “Disasters Don’t Wait. Make Your Plan Today.” Although this landing page outlining National Preparedness Month is focused primarily on families, the ‘Ready Business’ menu link on that page offers access to multiple resources that are valuable for business and governmental agencies such as water and wastewater utilities.

Why The Focus On Resilience?

Supporting routine operations and maintenance when all related factors are under control is one thing. Being able to do so when factors beyond one’s control — e.g., floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemic, cyberattacks, and other natural or manmade disasters — are out of control requires planning responses to worst-case scenarios in advance.

For utilities that have not historically devoted time to updating business continuity plans on a regular basis, the need for adopting a more aggressive attitude toward resilience is being accelerated in multiple ways.

  • Climate-Change Impacts. Increased frequency and/or severity of problematic weather events, plus the ripple effects of climate patterns in the form of droughts or wildfires, and rising sea levels, can impact utility facilities or operations in a variety of ways. Over the past decade alone, increased frequency of record rainfall and flooding events have impacted many regions throughout the U.S. and globally.
  • Expanding Connectivity. The good news about Internet-of-Things (IoT) connectivity is that utilities now have better, quicker access to more data to manage water treatment and distribution operation performance than ever before. The bad news is that without appropriate cybersecurity protection, every node can become a potential access point for cybervandalism, or worse yet, international cyberattacks and security breaches as experienced by other commercial and government entities.
  • COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic is a prime example of an out-of-the-blue event that can threaten utility operations. It went from a non-existent disease to a global health emergency in a matter of months, placing new demands on utilities that went well beyond the experiences of previous emergency events. That included more employees working from home for longer periods of time than after any natural disaster, an entirely new level of need for personal protection equipment, and added testing requirements for employees and for treated water.

How To Design And Implement Action Plans For Resilience

The U.S. EPA and water-industry organizations offer quite a few resources for water and wastewater utilities to leverage when preparing their responses to emergency disruptions.

  • Getting Started. The EPA’s Drinking Water and Wastewater Resilience homepage and this EPA Vulnerability Self-Assessment Tool have a lot to offer. To help in planning and executing resilience plans, this EPA document also links to background information and training resources from a dozen respected water-industry organizations.
  • Threat-Specific Guidelines. Utilities with a known history of threat-specific events — e.g., hurricane-susceptible coastal areas, flood-prone riverside water and wastewater treatment plants, etc. — might want to review information for some of their specific concerns. This Ready.gov webpage lists more than two-dozen specific emergency scenarios — from active shooter drills to chemical emergencies to wildfires.
  • Cybersecurity. For utilities that are new to the challenges of cybersecurity, this EPA briefing outlines specific questions to ask and steps to take to improve the protection of utility IT systems and data. It also lists a series of steps to take in response to a suspected cyber incident. WaterISAC has also published a recently updated in-depth document on 15 Cybersecurity Fundamentals for Water and Wastewater Utilities.
  • Practice Makes Permanent. Any new emergency action plans that are developed need to be well communicated to staff and should be practiced through periodic, life-like emergency exercises to condition employee reactions under duress. Consider how the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic placed a lot of new pressures on utility management and employees with relatively short notice, as many emergency events tend to do.

Stay Informed Through Industry Resources

According to the WaterISAC website, the organization is “the only all-threats security information source for the water and wastewater sector.” In addition to water and wastewater utilities, its members include “local state/provincial and federal agencies; law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security agencies; consulting and engineering firms; and utility associations.”

The website’s ‘Resource Center’ menu offers links to information on risk assessments and emergency response plans, COVID-19 resources, cybersecurity threat detection, cybersecurity fundamentals, power outage resilience, and contaminant databases. The group also serves as a clearinghouse for reports on suspicious activities. Members can also gain access to quarterly summaries on incidents and suspicious activities at water and wastewater utilities as well as semi-annual threat analyses.

To read more about opportunities to protect vital water and wastewater treatment processes and resources, visit Water Online’s Resiliency Center.