Are You Prepared to Operate in a Coronavirus Pandemic?

Are You Prepared to Operate in a Coronavirus Pandemic?

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Can you keep operating during the COVID-19 pandemic? What if travel is curtailed?

You and your most experienced people can plan now so you can deal successfully with the coronavirus outbreak. Before you say, “I don’t have time to fool with this, I have a plant to run,” think what you’d say if a reporter calls to ask what you’ve done to prepare.

Most people know little about where their drinking water comes from and even less about where their used water goes and how it’s treated. But they expect us — the people who treat their water and wastewater — to know what to do no matter what kind of adverse circumstances we face.

Here are some ideas to help improve your readiness to deal with coronavirus. It’s not a complete plan, but it’s the beginnings of a plan — food for thought. It will get you started.

First and most importantly: Do you have a list of all your employees? Not just a phone-address-and-email list or an alphabetic list, but a list by license level and special skills. Can you create operations teams that provide you the critical mixture of skills required to operate your plant 24x7 if necessary? Do you also have phone numbers for board members, your district manager or public works director, the police, the fire department and critical suppliers?

Take the list idea a step further. If your plant is designed and equipped so operators can run it remotely from home, can you create an operating schedule and staff it with properly trained operators? Do you have enough laptops with the SCADA software loaded to go around if one quits without warning? If SCADA breaks down, what’s your back-up plan?

If you have critical equipment that only one or two people know how to operate properly, can you set up training immediately so more operators can be quickly trained? Do all operators know how, where and how often to sample for both process control and reporting? Are there analyses all operators need to know how to perform to back each other up?

Covering maintenance

Maintenance is another critical area. If you’re large enough so you have staff that only perform maintenance tasks, how will you assign maintenance staff so there is adequate coverage on all shifts? Create maintainer lists similar to your operator lists so people with critical knowledge and skills are available to provide coverage for at least a couple of weeks.

Is your plant surrounded by a fence? Is it in good condition? Do gates work properly? Can they be locked to prevent unwanted visitors from stealing equipment? Do you have adequate supplies of chlorine, sulfur dioxide, polymers and other critical treatment consumables on hand? Do you need to order more? If a general quarantine is declared, can you still get the job done?

Do you have jobs that must be performed by a person? Something such as grit removal, for instance, or handling biosolids. Plan for that contingency. Make sure the truck is fueled up and that you have extra fuel on hand. Make sure the prospective operator knows what to do.

Have you considered stocking up to two weeks of emergency food to get you through a transportation shutdown? MREs (meals ready to eat) or other survival type food may not sound appetizing, but nothing irritates workers like the thought that they may work all day and then have no food at the end of it. Also, do you have cots so off-duty operators can sleep between shifts?

Do you use consultants or contractors for support functions? If you do, do the people who provide that support know you expect them to show up in an emergency if called? It’s the same with any other supplier of critical services such as contractors for lift station repairs. Make sure they know they are expected to show up if called.

Does you operations center have supplies of extra batteries and chargers for cell phones and radios? Do you have a fully stocked first-aid kit? If you think you have a fully stocked first-aid kit, go get it now and inventory it. Are you down to two old bandages and a roll of dirty gauze? Restock the kit so if someone gets hurt you don’t have to bandage the wound with a dirty T-shirt.

Along with your first aid kit, have you told operators who take a variety of medicines to keep spare meds for a week or more with them at work? If your plant is like many these days, several operators are in their 50s and 60s and take prescription medicines to keep them going. Don’t leave a hole in your staff because someone had to go home to get medicine.

Do you have a mutual aid agreement with the utility down the road or in the next town over? Establish one now. It can keep you going in an emergency and makes reimbursing for expenses easier because the methods for charging and reimbursing are pre-established.

Talk with the head of emergency response for your city or county. Tell them what you’ve done to prepare and where you may not be completely ready. Make sure they completely understand the service you provide to the community and what you need from them to keep doing it completely (like help in getting critical employees to work).

When you’ve completed all the tasks outlined above, brief your boss. Tell him or her what’s been done, what’s not been done and what needs to be budgeted for. Provide an honest assessment of how close — or how far — you are from being ready to face an emergency.

Last but not least: Tell your employees what’s going on. Tell them how you’re addressing the emergency and what you expect of them. Solicit their help and ideas. Keep them informed.

About the author: Steve Frank is the retired public information officer for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver. In addition to 21 years at Metro, he worked in public relations for 10 years in the aerospace industry and was a Naval Aviator and a Navy public affairs officer. He has helped several water/wastewater utilities prepare emergency response plans and is a graduate of the FEMA Advanced Public Information Officer course.


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