Worst-Case Scenario

Every water and wastewater organization, large or small, is haunted by the prospect of at least one worst-case scenario, but few have had the time or resources to grapple with all-hazards planning to increase their readiness for such an event. Few agencies have full-time staff assigned to manage planning for every remotely feasible security or disaster scenario. And fewer still have developed comprehensive plans to ensure that they will be able to respond to, work through and recover from that event—regardless of how an emergency initially may affect their ability to provide services.

But emergencies are inevitable. That is why it is vital that water and wastewater organizations nationwide develop an understanding of emergency operations and preparedness planning, as well as business and continuity of operations planning. This article briefly reviews these complex but essential functions.

Security & Emergency Preparedness

Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 7, Critical Infrastructure Protection, established national policy to identify and prioritize the protection of critical infrastructure in the U.S. HSPD-7 recognized that each infrastructure sector has unique characteristics and operating models. Sector-specific agencies were designated to collaborate with federal, state and local government and private agencies within the water infrastructure. Under this directive, their assignment is to conduct vulnerability assessments and encourage strategies to mitigate risks within the sector.

The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-188, known as the Bioterrorism Act) was signed into law on June 12, 2002. The act is divided into four titles, and Title IV is particularly significant to the water sector. Now known as the Drinking Water Security and Safety Amendment, it added several provisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). In addition, Title IV requires community water systems to prepare or revise emergency response plans that incorporate the results of their vulnerability assessments.

Keeping up with these requirements is a challenge, especially for smaller agencies. To meet that challenge, developing and implementing an emergency response plan is a significant first step. It helps an agency focus on setting its priorities, determine how it will work with other agencies in response to a given crisis and identify what tools are available to handle such contingencies. These planning initiatives will help any agency better understand how to respond to, work through and recover from an emergency. Let’s look at just two scenarios that could happen at any water agency.

Scenario I: Workplace Violence

An employee tells some of his friends at work that he cannot keep up with his house payments and that his wife left with the kids because she cannot deal with losing the house. He just got a reprimand from his supervisor for being late to work, and he is plain fed up. In frustration, he tells his boss he was getting stressed out, but his boss simply told him to grow up or get out. The employee told three of his closest friends that he has had it and that someone is going to pay.

His friends tell him not to talk that way and encourage him to speak with someone in the employee assistance program. But three days later, the disgruntled employee walks into the office, pulls a handgun from his coat pocket and shoots his supervisor and the first colleague to come toward him. Then he locks himself into an adjacent room and barricades the door.

This is known as an “active shooter” situation. Considerations: Does your agency have a response plan for such an event? Do you have a plan for addressing potential workplace violence? Do you have a plan for training staff on how to respond if something like this takes place in your organization? Have you brought in your local police or sheriff’s office to talk to staff about how they would respond in such a case?

Scenario II: Explosion, Fire & Flood

A construction project is underway in a nearby residential area. It sits just below a 1.3-million-gal drinking water reservoir in your service area. A contractor’s backhoe strikes a gas service line while digging a trench on the job site, and a spark ignites a gas leak that results in a significant explosion and fire. Two townhouse buildings instantly are engulfed in flames, and several smaller explosions add to the inferno.

The large pipe leading from your agency’s pumping plant to the reservoir above this job site is severed, and your SCADA communications link to that reservoir is lost. The leak from the severed pipe is creating flooding downstream and damaging homes, and fire-flow to area fire hydrants has been diminished severely. The fire responders call your water company to ask for a liaison officer. They want someone from the agency to report to their incident command post to work in a unified command (UC), multi-agency coordination group (MAC) with them, the police, public works and the gas company.

Considerations: Do you have an emergency operations or emergency response plan? Are your managers, supervisors and employees trained in the Incident Command System or National Incident Management System? Has staff been trained to work in a UC or MAC? Do you know what all of these terms and acronyms mean? If you are a private company operating in a jurisdiction that does not require such a plan or training with government agencies, have you considered participating in such training anyway in order to support such an emergency response if needed?

Business Continuity Planning

You may not be in earthquake country, and you may never have experienced a tornado or hurricane in your region. But you do know that any number of emergency events could dramatically impair your agency’s ability to provide the services customers expect.

Assume an emergency strikes and you cannot provide drinking water, cannot run pumping plants, do not have an internal network up and running for several days or weeks, and cannot print paychecks. What plans should be in place to get these systems back up and running?

Considerations: Do you recognize the planning differences between emergency response and business continuity? Can you describe where emergency response stops and recovery begins for your agency? Has your agency sorted out what functions it must be able to perform no matter what, and which operating systems must be recovered first, second and beyond? Have you looked at interdependencies between systems to help assess and determine recovery priorities?

Have you considered how you would notify staff that the agency has been struck by an after-hours emergency? How would you tell them what to do? Have you considered where your key people live, as it will affect their response time? Have you assessed how their personal priorities—such as kids in school, aging parents or the fact that their home may sit on top of a major earthquake fault—could affect their role in resolving the agency’s crisis? An old adage asserts that an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. That is sound advice. Like many agencies, you may not be able to do as much capital improvement as desired because of funding constraints. But perhaps you can pair up some engineers and operations staff to examine these planning considerations. Some front-end planning can enhance your agency’s readiness—before that bad day ever happens.

 

Steve Frew is a consultant for Willdan Homeland Solutions. Frew can be reached at sfrew@willdan.com.

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