January 2011, Vol. 23, No.1


Enhancing community preparedness and resiliency

Resources for wastewater utilities

Matthew Everett

When people hear the term “community” along with “preparedness and resiliency,” the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is probably local emergency services, such as fire and police protection. Most people probably don’t think of drinking water or wastewater services when they think about preparedness and resiliency. Water services are very reliable, and most people don’t even consider the possibility of their failure when preparing for or recovering from an emergency, much less delve into the specifics of how they would be affected if these services failed.

Getting people to understand the consequences of failure can be difficult, but it is vitally important if communities are to remain resilient in the face of a water service interruption. Communities need to know that services can be interrupted due to a variety of factors. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, vandalism, and even failures in other critical infrastructure sectors (such as power blackouts) can disrupt wastewater services and have serious effects on communities. The Northeast Blackout of 2003, for example, caused widespread wastewater treatment system failures and the discharge of wastewater into beach areas, lakes, and streams.

It’s equally important to note that wastewater systems are dependent upon other critical infrastructures in order to maintain services. For example, telecommunications, transportation, and even health care services can be essential components in keeping water services operational during an emergency.

Recent efforts to increase resiliency in the water sector have highlighted the need to ensure that all critical infrastructure sectors are aware of the important role water plays in their operations and vice versa, and that they are prepared to work together in the event of a water emergency. To help foster this cross-infrastructure collaboration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a number of tools and resources specifically designed to help water utilities and the communities they serve enhance their preparedness and resiliency. In particular, there are two programs that local communities should consider as part of their preparedness and resiliency efforts.

Community-Based Water Resiliency initiative
EPA launched the Community-Based Water Resiliency (CBWR) initiative to increase awareness of interdependencies between the water sector and other critical infrastructure sectors and increase community preparedness for water service interruptions. This initiative provides a comprehensive approach to water preparedness and community resiliency by bringing together water utilities, critical water users, community officials, and interested citizens with the common goal of enhancing water preparedness and resiliency. The initiative delivers low- to no-cost tools and information to better incorporate resiliency practices into utility operations, as well as the operations of interdependent sectors.

CBWR also can help wastewater utilities involve the entire community in water system preparedness by tailoring activities to the specific needs of the community. Water utilities, for example, can use outreach materials included in CBWR to raise awareness of the importance of water services and clearly and concisely explain the effects of a water service interruption on local services and businesses. With fact sheets tailored to different critical infrastructure sectors, such as emergency services and health care/public health, communities can easily and quickly raise awareness and garner support for enhanced water preparedness efforts and help ensure that the community at large is better prepared to face a water service interruption.

The centerpiece of the CBWR initiative is the new CBWR electronic tool, which includes a self-assessment, summary report, and resource toolbox. Five stakeholder-specific self-assessment modules have already been developed, and each contains information and resources specific to its target user group. The five modules currently available target

  • drinking water and wastewater utility owners and operators;
  • health care and the public health sector;
  • the emergency services sector;
  • state and tribal drinking water primacy agencies; and
  • concerned community members, including elected officials, critical water users, public affairs specialists, and other nonwater-sector entities.

Additional modules are planned for release in 2011.

Users choose the most applicable module and complete a self-assessment by entering basic community demographics, along with information on any preparedness and resiliency efforts already undertaken by their organization. The self-assessment only takes 10 to15 minutes to complete, after which the tool generates a summary report congratulating users on positive steps already taken and pointing them toward specific resources that are most likely to be of interest or need within their community. The CBWR tool also includes guidance on how to identify critical water users in a community and offers suggestions for engaging them in the design and implementation of CBWR efforts.

Experienced users can navigate directly to the CBWR resource toolbox for more in-depth information on a wide variety of resources available to enhance water preparedness and resiliency. Examples of these resources include information on training for water-sector-specific incident response systems, a toolkit for small water and wastewater systems on security and emergency response, and key features of an active and effective program.

To receive a beta version of this new tool or to help EPA beta-test it, send an e-mail to WSD-Outreach@epa.gov and put “CBWR” in the subject line.

‘Key Features of an Active and Effective Protective Program’
One of the many resources available in the CBWR toolbox is “Key Features of an Active and Effective Protective Program,” which assists utility owners and operators in preventing, detecting, responding to, and recovering from adverse effects of all hazards. This resource describes the basic elements of a “protective program” and can be used as a framework to develop utility-specific approaches to security. The Key Features (see sidebar, below) can be used by all drinking water and wastewater utilities, regardless of size, and are consistent with the management philosophy of continuous improvement.

EPA has completed several in-depth case studies documenting “real world” implementation of the Key Features and the benefits and challenges utilities experienced as a result. Through these case studies, EPA documented specific examples of how the Key Features are being implemented, as well as how utilities worked collaboratively with other interdependent sectors to enhance overall community preparedness and resiliency.

EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Utility Case Study and New England Utility Case Study were completed this year and document several successful activities under way in the communities, including

  • assessing program priorities and critical points of failure to increase effectiveness,
  • dedicating funds to specific priorities,
  • building redundancy into systems where potential vulnerabilities were identified to guard against system outages,
  • developing partnerships with critical customers and interdependent sectors to increase preparedness and resiliency, and
  • exercising emergency response plans with partners to ensure efficient coordination during an emergency.

These case studies also emphasize the importance of utilities approaching security and emergency management from an all-hazards standpoint and tailoring protective programs to specific local and regional issues. By adopting the Key Features, wastewater utility owners and operators can help reduce the risks of potential public health, economic, and environmental consequences of a water service disruption while also improving the overall effectiveness of utility operations.

Reinforcing connections
CBWR and the Key Features help wastewater utilities understand and explain to the communities they serve the importance of water and the costs to a community of water service failures. By working with interdependent sectors and other community organizations to enhance overall community preparedness and resiliency, wastewater utilities can ensure that the community services they rely on to operate are able to function in the event of a water emergency.

By implementing these EPA initiatives, wastewater utilities can foster communitywide preparedness for all hazards and foster enhanced resiliency across all critical infrastructures.

For more information about these and other EPA water security initiatives, visit www.epa.gov/watersecurity, or e-mail WSD-Outreach@epa.gov.

Matthew Everett is a fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge (Tenn.) Institute for Science and Education, working in the Office of Water with the Water Security Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

The ‘Key Features’ that help utilities increase community preparedness, resiliency

  • Integrate protective concepts into organizational culture, leadership, and daily operations.
  • Identify and support protective program priorities, resources, and utility-specific measures.
  • Employ protocols for detection of contamination.
  • Assess risks and review vulnerability assessments.
  • Establish facility and information access control.
  • Incorporate resiliency concepts into physical infrastructure.
  • Prepare, test, and update emergency response and business continuity plans.
  • Develop partnerships with first responders, managers of critical interdependent infrastructure, other utilities, and response organizations.
  • Develop and implement internal and external communication strategies.
  • Monitor incidents and threat-level information.

©2011 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.