Ingenuity Winner: Solve a Wastewater Crisis With Reverse 911

Thanks to Utilities Manager Dan Wasko, emergency sewerage communication with customers is as simple as pushing a button.

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Editor’s Note: We will be highlighting the winners of WEF’s Operator Ingenuity Winners in an ongoing series on our website. The winners of this annual contest are asked to present at WEFTEC each year. Have a great idea yourself? Learn more about the award, the categories and the competition here.

Power outages are bad news. But sometimes good things come of them.

That was the case in Carlsbad, Calif., where Utilities Manager Don Wasko came up with a “reverse 911” idea as a way to notify his sewer customers of problems on the system and ask for their cooperation.

“A few years ago, we had a major power outage here,” he recalls. “Our crews did a great job of getting fuel to our emergency generators and getting our emergency operations center going.”

But it occurred to him that there had to be a way to let everybody on the system know about problems like this and advise them of what to do in their homes and businesses.

“I went to our emergency preparedness coordinator and suggested we check with our phone vendor and see if we couldn’t install a reverse 911 calling system. When they said it was do-able, we gave our GIS department all of our lift station zones, and identified all of the customers served by each specific zone. GIS then developed “Shape” files of the zones and submitted them to our vendor.”

Now, Wasko says, in the case of an emergency, his team can craft a message, and — with the click of a button — the message can be texted, emailed or phoned to all affected customers to let them know about the problem. Not only that, Wasko’s department can advise customers on what they can do in response — like reducing water usage until the lift station issue is fixed.

“We can send out thousands of phone messages [almost instantaneously],” he says. “We leave a message if there’s no answer, and the Shape files let us know how many of the calls were answered.”

People normally don’t like to get automated messages, but Wasko says customer reaction to the reverses 911 calling plan has been positive.

“We’ve used it a few times,” he says, “and most people have been very supportive.”

David Harrison, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator, is also supportive.

“It’s a useful tool,” he says. “For the past three years, we have been part of the Alert San Diego emergency response network. Don was the catalyst [for using the network to initiate the reverse 911 calling system for sewer issues].”

Harrison says one usually thinks of emergencies in terms of life and property issues, but now environmental threats are included as well. “That’s kind of exciting,” he says.

The reverse 911 system is the second Operator Ingenuity Award Wasko has received. Another winner was a stormwater mitigation program, which used 4- by 4-inch blocks that let stormwater pass around them down through pea gravel and into a French drain. The blocks were installed on a 1-acre city lot previously covered with impervious blacktop. The filtration and adsorption that occur in the block system have reduced total dissolved solids by as much as 85 percent in stormwater runoff, Wasko reports.

Wasko has been in the water utility profession for 33 years, 17 of them in Carlsbad. He supervises the operation and maintenance of a 270-mile sewer system that carries about 6 mgd of wastewater from Carlsbad to the Encina Wastewater Treatment Plant on the Pacific coast.


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