Prepare Your Plant for Emergencies

Emergency response planning could save you money and your workers’ lives
Prepare Your Plant for Emergencies
Having an up-to-date emergency response plan is an effective and relatively inexpensive method to prepare your facility for emergencies.

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Customers expect 24/7/365 from water and wastewater infrastructure, and that’s why treatment systems need to be prepared to deal with emergencies that might disrupt operations. 

While local and national professional associations publish manuals and offer conferences on specific steps that water and wastewater systems can take to deal with emergencies, advance planning and an “emergency mindset” are a couple of areas that could yield significant benefits if plant managers and operators take them to heart. 

Jack Moyer, national water security and preparedness practice leader for URS Corp, believes the key to successful emergency response is anticipation of events that go above and beyond anything we’ve experienced to date. “Whether natural, weather-related, man-made or technological, the events we need to prepare for are things that have never happened to us before,” he says. He points to Hurricane Sandy, and the monster tornadoes that have occurred recently across the South, as examples. 

Moyer also emphasizes that effective emergency planning does not have to cost an arm and a leg. “After 9/11 we invested a lot in hard or physical security solutions,” he says. 

But there are measures utilities can take that are effective and relatively inexpensive, he notes:

  • Have an up-to-date emergency response plan
  • Train employees in emergency response
  • Make sure employees and their families are prepared for emergencies 

Bob Fullagar, director of distribution with Middlesex Water Company in New Jersey and vice president of Twin Lakes Utilities, agrees with the need to be ready. 

“Unfamiliarity with the ICS (Incident Command System) is a contributing factor to problems caused by emergencies,” he says. “The failure to identify/assign ICS roles in the planning stage becomes compounded during response because responsibilities haven’t been defined. The Incident Commander ultimately becomes overloaded during an event which could lead to improper assessment of mission critical tasks.” 

Fullagar adds that systems get in trouble when they don’t practice for emergencies. “The frequency with which emergency operations plans are exercised is not often enough, and follow-up of corrective actions through completion is an area where many falter,” he says. 

“I’d suggest utilities understand how ICS works, obtain ICS certification, conduct exercises and follow through on corrective actions.” 

Beyond planning, there are specific measures water and wastewater systems can take to guard against disasters. Moyer, past chair of the AWWA’s committee on emergency preparedness and security, cites two:

  • Backup power
  • Cybersecurity 

“Our water and wastewater infrastructure is highly dependent on the energy sector,” Moyer says. “Power outages are the number one reason our systems go down.” It’s usually not the storm itself, he says, it’s that power is disrupted. 

While emergency generators and the fuel to operate them are not cheap, he notes, they are critical. “We’re getting better at this,” he says, “but over and over again (with large recent storms) we see the interdependency of the water and energy sectors.” 

The security of our process control systems is just as important, now that nearly all water and wastewater systems are automated and computer controlled to some degree. “Make sure that your process control is separated from the Internet,” Moyer advises. “You can’t be complacent (in this area), but need to be alert to the possibility that some individual with malevolent intent may try to disrupt your process control system.” 

He notes that President Obama signed an executive order last February aimed at improving the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure (including water and wastewater). The American Water Works Association is developing similar guidance

For more information on emergency preparedness and power outages, visit


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