In Case of the Unthinkable

Hurricane. Flood. Fire. Power failure. Bad things not only can happen. They almost certainly will. How well are you prepared for an emergency?

This month’s “In My Words” column tells how two Rhode Island wastewater treatment plants handled the aftermath of unprecedented floods that left them underwater.

Both plants survived admirably from emergencies of a size they could hardly imagine, let alone prepare for. And surely, in a year of floods such as 2010, they weren’t the only treatment plants that took on water.

Their experience should raise a question in any treatment plant manager or operator’s mind: What if something like that happened here? It wouldn’t have to be a flood. It could be a tornado. A fire. A massive and long-lasting utility power outage.

The funny thing about disasters is that sooner or later, on some scale or other, they happen. And how well you survive and thrive afterward depends heavily on how well you prepare.

Making the time

Disaster planning isn’t fun, especially whenit takes time that already is in short supply. It’s easy, consciously or not, to adopt that attitude that “It won’t happen here,” at least for, say, the next six months or a year. So why not procrastinate a little longer?

Well, ask those folks in Rhode Island. Their experience argues for planning for everything including a worst-case scenario. Now, treatment plants, being absolutely critical facilities, by nature have contingency plans in place and redundancy built in.

They are prepared, for example, for big spikes in flow. They have backups for the most critical equipment. But even extremely well run plants can have chinks in their emergency planning armor. Consider West Warwick, R.I., plant superintendent Peter Eldridge learned from the flood the importance of keeping vital records in high-and-dry areas, or storing it off-site.

In Warwick, executive director of Warwick Sewer Authority Janine Burke discovered the wisdom of placing SCADA servers and other critical computer equipment on the second floor (if available). If it took a flood to teach these excellent operations such basic lessons, what vulnerabilities exist at other treatment plants around the country?

The people side

Quite often, a basic flaw in an emergency plan (at a treatment plant or any other facility) lies not in lack of equipment or technology but in lack of organization: whom to contact, and how, in case of this or that emergency.

Take electric power, without which, of course, a treatment plant is disabled. Plants by law have substantial backup generating capacity, in case utility power goes down. But what if the backup generation fails, because it’s flooded, because its maintenance has been neglected, or for any other reason?

The plant has no power. What now? Who is responsible? Where do you call? Assuming a temporary unit can be delivered, where should it be installed? Is there easy access to the necessary connection points? How big a unit is needed to run all the essential loads? Are multiple units needed to handle localized loads? Who will operate the temporary equipment?

More fundamentally, which staff members are in charge of making everything happen? If they are not on site at the onset of the emergency, how can they be reached? Is there a list somewhere of specific responsibilities, home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, pager numbers, e-mail addresses?

To prepare yourself for loss of power, you should have an established relationship with a rental generator dealer (as Eldridge did in West Warwick, and as Warwick’s engineering firm did). If you have a connection with a dealer, then you know at once where to call, and the dealer probably knows roughly what you need, and either has it in stock or can get it quickly.

Remember, emergencies often cover a wide area and create vast and sudden demand for temporary equipment. Do you want to be in the middle of a disaster, going through the Yellow Pages, calling generator rental houses that are already swamped with orders, standing in line behind school systems, hospitals and factories that have worked with those dealers on emergency plans?

Part of the community

Electric power is just one example. The past “year of floods” should be a wake-up call to pull out your emergency plan and revisit it from front to back. Even if it’s a good plan, you can almost surely make it better. And the Rhode Island experience may cause you to think a little harder in defining the true worst-case scenario.

One item Burke mentioned among her “lessons learned” deserves special emphasis: Your organization should be well represented on your community’s emergency planning committee. In disaster planning, most of the attention seems to go to police, fire, rescue, public works and hospitals. Yet wastewater treatment is just as important. Your facility and your staff should have a role in planning.

So, as you dust off your emergency plan, you may also want to offer your services to help plan for the impact of a disaster on the community that surrounds you.

If you have stories or best practices on emergency planning to share, please let us know about them, so that we can share them with your peers in the industry. Send a note to I promise to respond, and we’ll report on excellent examples on the pages of TPO.

Here’s wishing you never have to deal with a disaster, but that if you have to, you will be ready.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.