From The Editor | December 12, 2014

The Utility Response To Terrorism


By Kevin Westerling,

Here’s a bit of information that I hope you never need to reference again, but you should be aware as a matter of preparedness. The U.S. EPA has done research and created guidelines on the proper utility response to the intentional contamination of the public water supply. Need to Know: Anticipating the Public’s Questions during a Water Emergency was developed through a series of workshops with drinking water utility professionals and municipal water consumers. The consumers were asked to identify their “critical information needs” if water supplies were to be compromised, and also to critique the emergency messages drafted by utilities for such events. The feedback essentially detailed the do’s and don’ts for communicating a terrorist attack or similar breach in water safety.

One takeaway from the report is that the words “terrorist” and “attack” act as a double-edged sword — they work well to garner immediate attention (I plead guilty), but also increase anxiety. Here are some more tips, conclusions, and recommendations from the EPA report.

What The Public Needs To Know

The most important questions for utilities to answer, according to workshop participants, are the following:

  • What is the contaminant?
  • How long will service be disrupted?
  • Who, specifically, is affected?
  • What is the likelihood and consequence of exposure?
  • Can tap water be used for any purpose?
  • What alternative water supplies are available?
  • Where can I get information updates?

In the natural course of resolving the issue, the utility will be seeking many of the same answers, so the requested information should be readily available, at some point, to disseminate. However, there are guidelines as to how the message should be delivered.

Tips For Effective Emergency Messaging

Be transparent

The study found that the public has little knowledge of testing procedures, which may result in unrealistic expectations when it comes to answering the questions above. It was recommended that utilities proactively apprise their customers of testing parameters and results — including them with water bills, for instance — to engender credibility and some degree of latitude should a crisis occur. Understanding of testing will also be helpful once the contaminant is cleared, as test results will be critical in restoring public confidence in the water supply.    

Establish your voice

Consumers in the study were also largely unfamiliar with reverse 911 call systems, indicating that they would be wary of them as a source of information. To make sure your message is heard and heeded, the call should clearly indicate who is providing the information and where to go for confirmation. It’s also recommended that utilities use multiple channels of communication to further establish the veracity of the call and message.

Avoid panic

As mentioned, there are certain “trigger” words that should be used carefully, if at all, when delivering your message to the public. While “terrorist” and “attack” draw intense focus, they also produce anxiety. The EPA report specifically references the psychology that exists due to September 11, 2001, stating that “the public will readily anticipate multiple coordinated attacks.” In this state of concern or panic, it becomes very difficult to assimilate new and essential information. “On the whole,” the report suggests, “limiting the use of these strongly emotive terms as much as possible is likely to beneficial.”

You can download the full report here, part of the EPA’s Emergency/Incident Planning, Response, and Recovery page.  Frankly, the EPA site is so extensive that it can be difficult to navigate and find what you need, which is why I chose to highlight this Need to Know document — though I hope you never need it.