WWD Senior Managing Editor Bob Crossen talked with Water Environment Federation Executive Director Walt Marlowe about the effects of COVID-19 on the organization, water and wastewater facilities and continuing education units.
Editor’s note: The below transcript has been edited for grammar, clarity and to remove filler words or content. The full, unabridged audio interview is available as a special episode of Talking Under Water embedded in the player below.
Bob Crossen: Hey everybody, this is Bob Crossen, senior managing editor for Water and Wastes Digest. This is a special episode of Talking Under Water. We have Water Environment Federation Executive Director Walt Marlowe here. Walt, thank you so much for being on the call.
Walt Marlowe: Yeah, thanks for having me, Bob. Good to be here today. Wish it was under better circumstances, but still it's good to be able to bring info out to everybody.
WEF’s Response to Covid-19
Bob Crossen: Yeah, same here. Same here. Well, why don't we just start kind of from a higher level perspective. WEF and its response to COVID-19. What's been the response there and what are your primary concerns with the virus at this point?
Walt Marlowe: Yeah. So we have been responding on a couple of different levels. First and foremost is to our members partners and customers out in the wastewater industry that we're trying to get the best information that we possibly can to them. Of course we're very much relying on information that's coming out from government entities like the CDC at the front of the health and OSHA as far as issuing guidances for how our operators need to deal with a lot of the situation.
Crossen: And when it comes to WEF itself, organizationally, what are you guys doing? I imagine there's remote work involved or just within the organization itself.
Marlowe: Yeah, absolutely. So we have a lot of products and many of those are in person events. We've had to cancel a variety of events from some small training courses up to, you know, over 500 person conferences. And pretty much our whole slate of activities that involve face to face have been canceled for March and April. Fortunately we don't have too much activity going on in May. Our next big decisions on events are coming up in June. So from our customer standpoint, we're trying to protect their health and we're also trying to move some of that content into distance presentations so that we don't miss out on a lot of that expertise that was assembled for the in person events.
Marlowe (Cont.): From the kind of staff operations standpoint, we went to voluntary teleworking last week and I actually just announced that as of Wednesday we'll be going to full time telework mandatory for all of our staff. Thankfully we've been putting in place the technology and the processes and procedures to be able to do that, and this is really the first full bloom — full blown test — to ensure that we really can continue to serve our, our members and our customers on the distance basis. And then the next group that we're really worrying about supporting is our member associations. WEF is a federation. So we have approximately 70 organizations, both domestically and around the world that we help support and they're also making difficult decisions regarding their meetings, in-person activities and how their staffs are going to operate over this time. So we're trying to help support them also.
A Catalyst for Remote Work?
Crossen: Yeah, it's an interesting time. I read an article last week on how this might be the catalyst to drive remote work forward and be the future of workforce. It's really, really a fascinating concept that this could create that kind of catalyst too.
Marlowe: Absolutely. I could, I could definitely see that both in the, "How do you work?" And "How do you learn? Because I think the effect on people getting their continuing education is going to be pretty profound over these next couple of months. I think you'll see a lot of behavioral change in getting more comfortable with some of the distance learning. I don't think that's going to ever eliminate the need for people to come together. There's still unique value of coming in and meeting people and getting some of that serendipity of coming together face to face, but certain components will certainly shift to a distance, I think.
What does Coronavirus mean for Water and Wastewater Facilities?
Crossen: For sure. So moving on more to this stuff as it relates directly to like drinking water operators and plant managers, things with wastewater, some of the scientific information that you can share about [COVID] 19 that WEF currently knows and how is that actionable for municipalities and utilities with drinking water and wastewater?
Marlowe: Well, we're fortunate that the guidance coming out of the CDC and other science and health organizations is saying this is a Coronavirus. It has a lot of the similar traits like the previous Coronavirus like SARS or MERS that have come out. And in those cases, there really is no kind of evidence that the drinking water system or the wastewater systems are at an especially high risk. The standard disinfecting techniques that are used on both sides of the equation there have proven to be sufficient to inactivate the Coronaviruses. So I think the only special things that utilities really need to do is just to monitor to ensure that there's free chlorine available during treatment cycles to ensure it's not been depleted. And that should take care of,uthe coronavirus.
How Will Coronavirus Impact WTP & WWTP Staffing?
Crossen: One of the other elements too is the staffing of those facilities as well. A lot of these municipalities do have essential personnel, so I believe in, in times of crisis, they have to be there. What are best practices in that regard too? I imagine from a plant manager standpoint and scheduling all these people, it's going to be difficult over the next month or so.
Marlowe: Yeah. I think that's the big challenge is the more personal staffing side of this. On the science side of it, CDC and OSHA are both saying that the typical administrative and engineering controls general safe working practices, personal protective equipment all these things that are usually used in the process are sufficient to protect the workforce from COVID-19. So really I think the challenge is going to be how does the workforce deal with issues, if you have family members at home, we're seeing school closings across the country, children need to be cared for, older adults might need some care. So that's challenging that schedule of when people may need to be taking time off or when they can get in to work. That may be the bigger challenge than the actual health side for wastewater facilities.
Crossen: And God forbid if someone does contract it on staff too. That would throw a whole other wrench into the works.
Marlowe: Absolutely. Similar to what we've done with telework we've also, added monitoring for people that want to come back to the office for any kind of critical items self reporting of where people have been. So I think that's going to be proven across any kind of operation right now.
Best Practices for Public Outreach
Crossen: Well, and the other element here too for from a utility and a municipality standpoint is catering to customers about these treatments systems and the disinfection systems, and letting them know that their drinking water is fine. Their wastewater system is approaching this correctly. What are best practices for that community outreach element there?
Marlowe: Yeah, I think you're hitting on a great point for the last century our drinking water systems and wastewater systems in the U.S. Have been doing an absolutely wonderful job of providing a safe product and protecting the public health. We've done such a good job of it that we, by-and-large, fly under the radar, right? People expect to turn their tap on. They expect to flush their toilets and to experience no problems. They certainly expect it during some kind of challenging health crisis like we're facing now. So I think it's really important for the agencies to be putting up public information on their website reassuring folks that this is nothing out of the ordinary that we're now prepared to deal with, and our systems are going to say safe during the whole crisis. So I think that's a big challenge and I hope that everybody's out there putting information at the forefront so that their customers are not having to sort through their websites or other communications to really find stuff. Hopefully a number of them also have robust emailing where they can get out and be proactive with that messaging.
Toilet Paper Frenzy & Concern About Flushable Wipes
Crossen: One of the other things that I've noticed too — this is maybe a little down a deeper rabbit hole — is the, the buying up of all the toilet paper, right? And that's likely going to lead to people also buying more of the flushable wipes and stuff like that too, and that presents its own challenges and more community outreach for a different reason entirely. But it all kind of feeds together too.
Marlowe: Yes. Actually, we were just talking about some messaging that WEF is actually going to do along that because being stuck at home in a quarantine is really not a great situation. Being stuck at home with a backed up wastewater system is even worse of a quarantine. So we do want to send out reminders about what you should and should not be flushing into your toilet or into any other kind of wastewater system. We really want you to stick to toilet paper at this time and not some of these other products. People just want to get it out of their sight and they really don't belong in the wastewater system especially at this time.
Licenses, Training, Certification & Continuing Education Plans
Crossen: The last thing that I had thought about when it came to this virus, as you mentioned, the canceling of shows postponing of shows, a lot of those have continuing education credits and continuing education units that operators and trainees rely on to get certification and licenses, and all of that. What are the avenues that WEF is looking at to make sure that those are still available to people, even though those events are being being canceled or postponed?
Marlowe: Right. Well, we're really looking at taking a lot of the content that we would have been delivering through an in person event and trying to bring that to our members and customers using distance technologies, webcasts, online learning modules. And we're reaching out to some of the authorities that certify the learning, whether it's at a state level or working with the certification boards to talk about how can they possibly be a little more lenient over the coming months with accepting some of the professional development hours versus continuing education units versus any other measurement of how they define a valid continuing education unit because I think it really is the goal of these programs to ensure that people are staying up to date. Given the new distance technologies, we're able to deliver that kind of learning the same as someone would get it in person. So I think that the cognizant agencies really need to be aware of that. And we talked a little bit earlier about pushing change as a result of this crisis and that's an area that maybe we'll be able to see a little more experimentation, a little more innovation in how we accept learning credits from individuals.
Crossen: Yeah. Yeah, certainly an interesting time that's making everyone kind of rethink some of the processes that have been in place forever, basically.
Marlowe: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. We always talk about how the classroom is very often the same classroom that the ancient Greeks or Romans might've experienced. Uh so it's great to have a lot of these new technologies to be able to reach people with information.
Pride in the Industry’s Work
Crossen: Yeah. Is there anything else that you wanted to share that maybe we didn't touch on in our conversation today?
Marlowe: Well, I think the key thing is really to keep coming back to: we have an amazing, a bunch people that are involved in the drinking and wastewater industries. They work hard every day to protect public health. And I think the public can really rest assured that that the diligence is going to continue during this crisis and that their water and wastewater systems are going to continue to serve them and continue to protect the public health through this.
Crossen: Yeah. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today, Walt. I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule and especially during a time like this to come and chat with us about this issue and what it means for operators, engineers, consultants in the like.
Marlowe: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me today. And hopefully we'll get back with you someday in the future after this crisis has passed.
Crossen: I look forward to it.