When Will It Be Your Turn?

Almost every organization has an emergency sooner or later. The best way to make sure you survive it intact is to plan for the worst — today.

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Someone wise once said nothing ever goes wrong — until it does. The captain of the cruise ship Carnival Triumph probably thought nothing would go wrong with his 102,000-ton ship when he got underway from Galveston, Texas on Feb. 7 for a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico.

Inspection reports by the U.S. Coast Guard on the condition of back-up generators and lifeboats raised few red flags. The same goes for the sanitation inspection report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, something went wrong, and the 4,200 passengers and crew became poster children for what happens when disaster strikes. Some took it in stride. Others sued.

A fuel line ruptured, crippling the cruise ship. The ruptured line caused an engine room fire, and that caused a complete loss of power. Propulsion was lost. Toilets wouldn’t flush. Elevators and air conditioning didn’t work. Food service was severely restricted. The ship had to be towed to Mobile, Ala.

Are you ready?

What about our utilities? Are we prepared to deal with a complete loss of power? Or a former employee who comes with a gun and methodically shuts down treatment and alarm systems? Or a major main break that causes a giant sinkhole?

An emergency you are unprepared for can ruin your day and your career. Being prepared can make you look brilliant. The basics aren’t that hard. Some states require utilities to have emergency plans on hand. Colorado, for example, requires plants to submit an overall facility operating plan.

If a facility doesn’t have an overall operating plan, it must submit a discussion or outline of the emergency response program used at the facility. That submission must include:

  • A description of alternate power sources
  • A discussion of alarm systems installed at the facility, including any remote transmission of alarms
  • A description of the chain of command in emergencies
  • Any other information needed for emergency response

The facility also must submit a copy or description of its staffing plan. The plan must include the number of operators and their certification levels, plus operating personnel coverage during weekdays, weekends and holidays.

The softer side

Figuring out the operating emergencies to plan for and creating plans for them is relatively straightforward. One approach would be to think, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to us? What is the likelihood of that happening?” Write it down, and then do the same thing for several other potentially disastrous events.

With the event identification done, begin to think outside the fenceline to flesh out the plan. What happens if you have a chlorine leak? That kind of event affects people both within and outside the plant. Your ability to disinfect is likely compromised, and your employees’ and neighbors’ health may be jeopardized.

Panic may set in among your neighbors. The media will descend upon you. Emergency response agencies, firefighters, hazardous materials handlers and police will overrun your facility, and you will be one among many agencies involved in the situation. Questions from the media will come thick and fast. Confusion will reign.

Facilities can prepare for the non-technical requirements of handling an emergency by thinking beyond the control room. At the management level, these preparations include:

  • List everyone who would be recalled to help deal with an emergency. Include physical address, desk phone, cellphone, home phone, remote location phone (such as a getaway cabin) and email.
  • Develop an incident command model for emergencies. The Incident Command System is a good model for which there is much support from the federal government. You can find basic information about it at http://www.fema.gov/incident-command-system#item1.
  • Spell out in writing who has the authority to activate the emergency response plan.
  • Develop a plan to notify next-of-kin of employees who have been hurt or killed. Make sure you notify the family first. Do not let someone else do it.
  • Sign a WARN (Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network) agreement so you can borrow people and equipment from other utilities in an emergency.
  • Make sure someone on your recall list has enough spending authority to rent equipment you might need (like power generators) or hire emergency repair crews.

Handling the press

The next several items will help you plan to deal with the media. Depending on the seriousness of the emergency, you could have zero to hundreds of media people on hand, all demanding your immediate attention.

  • Identify and appoint in writing an emergency spokesperson or public information officer (PIO), even if you don’t normally have one. The PIO must not be the person who will lead the operational side of the recovery effort.
  • Designate a back-up for the emergency PIO — people get sick and go on vacation.
  • Get media training for the PIO and backup, plus the top two operational officials who might serve as incident managers.
  • Spell out in writing who the PIO must get approval from to release information.
  • Spell out in writing who will contact government officials.
  • Compile a phone, cellphone, email and fax list of news media in your town and in nearby large cities. The media can help you notify stakeholders about what to do to avoid danger when lives are at risk.
  • Decide where your media holding area will be. You will need chairs and tables, phones, electricity, Wi-Fi access and a place to hold press briefings.
  • Write a one-page fact sheet about your utility. Include the headquarters location, the area it serves, how many people are served, what the annual budget is, how many employees, amount of water treated daily, how many miles of distribution lines, the last major upgrade, history and other basics. This is much easier to do when there is no emergency at hand.
  • Conduct a tabletop exercise with operators to talk through something like a complete loss of electrical power or other emergency. Include the communication component and local emergency management officials in the exercise.

Practice is extremely important. That’s when it’s OK to make a mistake and learn from it.

Happy endings?

All 155 passengers and crew survived when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched, without power, in the Hudson River in January 2009. They lived because Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger had flown thousands of hours and had practiced all types of emergencies — including dead-stick water landings — in simulators.

Sullenberger had seconds to decide whether to try for an emergency landing at Teterboro in New Jersey or in the river. He did not have time to pull out the aircraft operating manual and go through long lists of operating characteristics to choose a course of action.

He knew. He knew because he had practiced, and 155 people survived because he had.

Crisis management experts say there are only two types of organizations: Those that have had a crisis, and those that will. Planning for what to do in an emergency doesn’t mean you are planning for things to go wrong. It makes you a winner.

Sun Tzu, in his book, The Art of War, said the general who plans the most wins the battle. That’s what winners do.

About the Author

Steve Frank is retired as public information officer for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver, Colo. He now owns SDF Communications in Arvada and is a communications consultant for water and wastewater utilities. He can be reached at sdfcomm@q.com or 303-957-7459.


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