WWD Senior Managing Editor Bob Crossen talked with American Water Works Association Director of Communications Greg Kail about the effects of COVID-19 on the organization, water and wastewater facilities and continuing education units.
AWWA’s COVID-19 Response
Bob Crossen: So what has been AWWA's response to COVID-19. How has the organization been affected by it internally, externally, its membership. And then what is your primary concern with this virus at this point?
Greg Kail: Everything sort of mixes together in the timeframes right now, but I mean for several weeks, COVID-19 has for AWWA and its members pretty much taken over everyone's agenda. It's a hugely important issue. For us, we've stayed relentlessly focused on our members' needs and for us, that means, first of all, providing them the resources that they're looking for. So one of the first things that we did was stand up a resource page at awwa.org/coronavirus, where we have — in a simple place — somewhere that utilities and other members can find information that helps them address the various aspects of the pandemic.
Kail (Cont.): We've also been actively listening and actually soliciting the input from our members on what those impacts are. So we've done two full member surveys since this began. And, you know, we're asking questions about how the COVID-19 situation is impacting their operations. Do they feel prepared, or are there supply chain issues? Are there staffing issues? How are they adjusting to the social distancing? So, we're getting a lot of really good info from the members, which allows us to turn around and focus on producing resources that help them.
Kail (Cont.): We've really been pushing out to them our business continuity and emergency preparedness resources from the outset of this. I think it's a great sign that the feedback we're getting from utilities is that for the most part, they had business continuity plans in place or in development and it's mostly a question of implementation and improvement. You'll probably find some of those resources on the website. There's a guidance document on business continuity planning. Um, that's been out for a few years and it's really helpful. We've also been doing a free webinar series on COVID-19. We did one on risk communications on Friday [April 3], and the idea was helping utilities understand the importance of good risk communications approaches in these high stress times. We've been doing a lot in terms of reaching out to members in terms of providing them resources to help them talk to consumers about the COVID crisis particularly as it relates to water.
AWWA’s Organization & Internal COVID-19 Response
Crossen: So what about internally within the organization? How have you guys responded as an association? I imagine that you guys are also doing remote work too, right?
Kail: We've been working remotely for three weeks now and for us it's been well, I would say that it's gone very, very smoothly. We're able to do our work, in much of the same way. But of course, like everyone, we missed the face to face interaction. For the most part, we were able to understand what our members need and turn around and provide resources in much of the same way. And of course, that's with the exception of face to face conferences and learning events and meetings, which we've had to cancel several them to this point. AWWA's first core principle is the protection of public health. So we are paying very close attention to what CDC, World Health Organization, EPA and others are saying. And we're adjusting our plans accordingly.
Communications Best Practices During a Crisis
Crossen: What are some best practices for community outreach for municipalities and utilities? I imagine that this is a really important and critical time for them to be communicating with customers about the safety of their water. And especially like the flushable wipes thing has become a big issue now too. So it sounds like there's a lot of outreach opportunity. What are some best practices?
Kail: To begin — and a lot of these messages repeated in our webinar on [April 3] — but this is not a good time for water utilities to be silent. So, we're advising people to speak frequently with their customers, to speak openly and transparently about COVID-19, and to make sure that they're passing along the information from the leading public health authorities. But more importantly than the information itself, we're encouraging our utilities to make sure they communicate with empathy and listen to their customer concerns.
Kail (Cont.): One of the first principles of risk communications is to acknowledge people's concerns and respond with empathy and understanding of where they are. So we've created a document called trending in an instant. This was just released just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and it provided us with an excellent foundation to talk about some of the important risks, communications principles and strategies and approaches. It was created by our public affairs council — 15 members of those are from throughout the United States and Canada — and the experiences of those public affairs council members was really critical to informing that product. We've made it available to all our members free of charge from the website of actual messages to consumers. I mean, we really are trying to make sure that we're providing consistent messages, and those include that people can continue to use their tap water as normal and CDC makes that very clear as does EPA and others. So, we're making sure that people are aware of that and it's bothered many of our utilities that people's reaction to the initial news of the pandemic was to rush out and buy a bottle of water.
Kail (Cont.): You know, particularly in a time when people are concerned about their finances. This is an excellent time to understand that not only is your tap water safe if it meets all standards, but it's also a tremendous value. That's one of the things that we're encouraging utilities to share. And of course, as you pointed out, um, the importance of not using the toilet as a trashcan. All of those, regular messages about flushing only toilet paper are protectively important at this time.
The Science of COVID-19, Water & Wastewater
Crossen: What's the scientific information that you can share about COVID-19, as it relates to drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment? And then, how does that impact then like the staffing of essential personnel and everything like that too?
Kail: Well, the best information we have, and it's been consistently repeated across EPA and others is that conventional water treatment and disinfection are sufficient to inactivate the virus. We're certainly paying close attention, in case there's any change in that message, but we don't expect it, and we're not hearing that. What it does say — and if I had an overarching message, it'd probably be this — water professionals and water systems are absolutely essential to halting the spread of COVID-19. The very first piece of advice you get from CDC is to wash your hands 20 seconds with soap and water. So obviously without water, without access to safe, reliable water, 24/7, people cannot do that. What follows from that is you need the people who keep those systems running, keep that water flowing.
Kail (Cont.): Water utilities are reviewing their essential functions and you know assuring that they're not disruptions in service. They have to evaluate who can work remotely and who must be on site in order to keep service up and reliable. Each utility has to address that in its own way. In some cases we've seen dramatic moves, like people living on site, but for the most part these utilities are being able to cover those essential functions and still maintain social distancing requirements.
Water Utilities Responses to COVID-19
Crossen: I know that there's some utilities that have gone to great links from the block themselves into their training facility to make sure that everything's running smoothly. Others are staying at like trailers on site. Um, and really does show the dedication that this industry puts into the work that they do.
Kail: In many ways, it's not surprising because water professionals have a built in commitment to public health. They don't get celebrated each day they walk into their office or put on their hard hat, but the work that they do in order to keep water flowing on a regular day is silently heroic. In the midst of the pandemic, it's maybe a little more visibly heroic. We're proud of the work that our members are doing, we're certain that will continue throughout their crisis.
Events Cancellations & Continuing Education Credits
Crossen: I know you had mentioned earlier on to the events, cancellations and stuff like that. I know that, when I had spoken with some people early on, there was concern about how are we going to get our CEUs because we can't get to our regional AWWA show. But it seems like a lot of that's being ameliorated through webinars and other technology and whatnot. Can you talk a little bit about what AWWA is doing on that front and how they're trying to ensure people can still get CEUs for certifications and licensing?
Kail: Each state is different and some States will award see use for webinars. So, we're investigating to see if there will be changes due to COVID-19, and what we may need to do to help operators get their CEUs. But it's still an area that we're working on.
Kail (Cont.): AWWA exists primarily to help water professionals gain and share knowledge with their colleagues. So we are actively — while people are not in a position to be together — looking for new pathways to provide information and the webinars series is one example of that. We had a good foundation for e-learning and for webinars and I think that will continue to grow — maybe in part because, or in large part — because of COVID-19.
Kail (Cont.): I will also say though, there is no substitute for those face to face conversations at events. Sometimes it isn't the presentation, the questions during the presentations. Sometimes it's just those hallway conversations where colleagues connect and discover solutions that are born out of another member's experience. We will certainly be prepared and I'm excited to go forward with onsite events, as soon as the public health picture becomes clear and we know that it's safe to do so.
Read: AWWA Cancels ACE20
Bob Crossen: Yeah, I totally agree with in person events. There's something different about them. You can connect with people in a different way. And I mean, with all the other noise that's out there with emails and phone calls and text messages and social media and everything, having that face to face conversation can break through a lot of barriers that you otherwise are unable to reach that person with. You know?
Greg Kail: Absolutely. I mean, I've heard stories where people have met at a conference or a seminar and although it wasn't their plan, they discovered some technical solution that ends up saving a community hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars over a period of time. Sometimes you find solutions where you're not looking, and that's why face-to-face conversations are so important.
Proud of the Industry’s Response & Resilience
Crossen: Yeah, definitely. Well, I do appreciate you taking the time today. Is there anything else that you wanted to share from the AWWA perspective?
Kail: I think I've said most of it. I would really stress the point that we have been just absolutely amazed at the good work. Amazed but not surprised that the good work that we've been seeing.It's a great testament to the commitment of water professionals. EPA sent a letter to governors, I don't know if you saw that, but it sent a letter to governors stressing the importance of recognizing water workers is essential. We applauded EPA for doing that, and what do you hope the governors will recognize the importance of water workers and getting us through this.
Crossen: Yeah. Well, I keep pushing it out there, even in my personal feeds, how important that industry is right now. I feel like sometimes there's an echo chamber with us, but I'm trying to start it out even through my personal network.
Kail: Everybody's saying it these days, but it's good because as they observed on the communications webinar, when you're really, really sick of your message, it might just might be starting to stick with somebody else, you know?
Crossen: Well, yeah, thank you so much and I appreciate you taking the time.
Kail: All right. Thanks, Bob.