Large scale disasters can cause significant disruptions to a water utility or system. The best way to prepare is to:
- Expect the unexpected! Analyze the inventory and inventory critical risks within your utility.
- Develop an emergency response plan. Planning in advance helps to ensure that when an emergency occurs everyone knows what to do.
An Emergency Response Plan (ERP) describes your utility’s strategies, resources, plans and procedures to prepare for and respond to an incident (again, man-made or natural) that threatens life, property or environmental resources.
How to Develop an Emergency Response Plan
Developing an ERP can feel like a daunting task but there are three areas that utilities can brainstorm first that will help build out and shape the whole plan: Redundancy, Logistics and Communication.
Redundancy is the ability to utilize back-up systems for critical parts of a system that fail. It is very important that you consider in the development of your plan emergency response and recovery. At minimum, emergency response planners should consider designing redundancy into the system in several areas: equipment and supplies, personnel, communications and control centers.
Redundant equipment can be as straightforward as retaining spare parts or diverting entire processes to a redundant system altogether. Redundant personnel looks like making sure operators are cross-trained to ensure that tasks can be carried out in the event that staff is unavailable. Redundant communications could include the use of radios should cell towers become unavailable or computers are no longer accessible. Lastly, redundant power, which could be a good starting point within your utility to kick-off conversations about redundancy.
Emergency response is a complex operation. There are a lot of moving parts in even a simple response and in the case of a disaster there will likely be multiple incidents that are being addressed simultaneously. For these reasons, it’s important to identify people, facilities and equipment required to respond.
In a standard incident command structure there is an incident commander, public information officer, and safety officer. In addition, there is an operations section, planning section, logistics section and finance/administration section. This incident command structure is usually applied at the local emergency planning level. At your utility you can apply the same structure or organization model to your existing staff to achieve an efficient emergency response team.
For example, the facility superintendent or director is going to be the emergency response lead but because this person is typically part of the larger response, the superintendent will likely be offsite at the incident command center. The information officer is someone who is in charge of communicating updates from the field to the lead, who again is likely at the incident command center. The safety officer would be someone who monitors incident operations and advises the lead on all matters relating to operational safety. This would include the health of the community and safety of incident personnel. The operations lead would be your “problem solver”. This person or group of persons would establish strategy and specific tactics to complete response objectives. The logistics lead would be a person or group who supports operations by ensuring supplies, equipment and personnel are available as needed to achieve response objectives. The planning lead would coordinate support activities for emergency response planning. This would include contingency plans and long-range plans. During a disaster, this person or group would help process information and assist in coordinating activities across the response. Finally, the admin/finance lead would support the lead and operations with administrative issues. This could include tracking and processing incident expenses, maintaining licensure and regulatory compliance and financial accounting.
After establish your ERP team and assigning roles it is important to identify and prepare a location where the response team will meet and work, in the event of an emergency. This emergency response center will act as a hub for all incoming information, outgoing communication and decision-making.
When disaster strikes, communicating issues and their consequences to customers and response partners is crucial. Internal and external communications may require different strategies.
Internal communication may include using a work order system to track response objectives. Work order systems require computers/tablets or cell phones. It is also important to discuss and develop a pen and paper system that would work best for your utility should power be an issue. Some utilities may already communicate via radio, but some use chat apps (Teams, etc.) that would require technology and power. Make sure to outline specific processes for certain situations.
External communication strategies involve disseminating information outside of the utility. This may be done through social media. Facebook Safety Check is a feature that allows users who are located within a certain distance of a natural disaster’s occurrence to log in and tell friends that they are safe. Google Crisis Response is a resource page that provides tools for both emergency responders and those in need of assistance. There are various applications and usage to assist in multiple communication methods in a time of need.
If the use of a secondary application is going to be used to communicate with residents, it is important that these channels are established well in advance of a disaster. Giving customers time to download the application, set up accounts and learn how to navigate the application to reach the information that they desire. Spend some time discussing which of these are best for your utility and what role they play in your communication plan
To summarize, it is important to have a plan in place in advance of a disaster. Discussing the answers to these 5 questions will help prepare your communication plan:
- How will information travel from the field to the emergency response center?
- How will response objectives be captured and communicated?
- How will information be conveyed from the utility to the local emergency response incident command system?
- How will the utility relay critical information to customers?
- What backup systems will be in place in case power is down?
Immediate Next Steps
There are a lot of things your utility or system can do to begin tackling an ERP. Brainstorming the three areas discussed above – redundancy, logistics, and communication – are a great start. There are other immediate next steps your utility can take to prepare including:
- Round table to brainstorm the high-level considerations some of the information shared above.
- Conduct a risk and resilience assessment (RA).
- Identify state regulatory requirements.
- Identify and integrate local plans from other departments or utilities.
- Coordinate with Local Emergency Planning Committees and response partners to see what work has already been completed.
- Define Emergency Response Roles and Incident Command System Roles.
- Set up a command center.
- Sign up for FEMA ICS training.
Brainstorming what your utility will do in case of an emergency will help identify vulnerabilities, address gaps in redundancy and personnel. Having an ERP and practicing the outlined procedures will best prepare staff for unexpected disasters – ultimately mitigating the disruption of the critical service you provide your customers.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a variety of tools and guidance available to support drinking water and wastewater utilities in their preparedness and response. You can find these resources at www.epa.gov/waterutilityresponse. The Environmental Finance Center Network also has free technical assistance available for water utilities that serve less than 10,000 people and wastewater assistance for those with a flow rate of less than 1 million gallons per day. If you are needing assistance, reach out to via our website at www.efcnetwork.org/get-help.