BY: Warren Tenney

Water Professionals Take On Role As First Responders

Published Jun 27, 2016

The important role of water professionals as first responders was a lesson relearned after 9/11 and, again, after Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012. These events prompted many water utilities throughout Arizona and the country to intensify disaster training for their employees, including lab and computer techs, plant operators, engineers and repair crews. With water so critical to our health and safety, water professionals are part of emergency response teams in many cities and counties. This responsibility creates a crew of well-trained employees that water customers can rely on if the unexpected happens.

Water utilities in each of the AMWUA cities have emergency plans in place.  For example, Scottsdale Water employees face complex disaster exercises multiple times a year, with a series of surprising and simultaneous problems to solve. A recent drill involved two water and sewer line breaks. Then two pump failures caused a temporary shortage of water flowing into a drinking water treatment plant and the other failure disrupted water service to several hundred customers. Preliminary tests also discovered a possible contamination in one water line. This exercise lasted about four hours with an additional hour for debriefing. During the debriefing staff members evaluate strengths and weaknesses of each department’s reaction, each piece of equipment, overall communications procedures and other components essential in a disaster to keep clean water flowing to customers and sewage out of the streets.

Scottsdale Water drills often include an extreme event that aggravates or initiates the situation. Disaster scenarios have been intensified by three days of temperatures above 120 degrees and increased water demand by customers. Other disaster drills have included a solar flare that took down power and a 6.3 earthquake. Scottsdale Water also conducts smaller, more local exercises throughout the year. These can involve unusual events at a pump station or reservoir, such as an unexplained open hatch or an unusual find by staff conducting a safety and security inspection.

For the last 12 years, Scottsdale Water has created what it calls an “emergency toolbox.” The toolbox is a set of standard emergency procedures that sits as an icon on everyone’s computer, along with a hardcopy for various work groups. The information inside is a step-by-step guide to each employee’s role in case of a specific emergency at specific locations, such as a water main break, power loss or a computer failure. The emergency toolbox specifies the chain of command and who gets notified, such as the city manager, police or customers, how they get notified and when. The toolbox is updated regularly and changes are made, if necessary, after each training exercise.

Water and wastewater utilities have enhanced security and response measures in other ways, as well. Here are a few examples.

  • Walls, gates and cameras secure exposed water infrastructure, such as small pump stations and reservoirs. Even visitors to Scottsdale Water’s administrative offices must show an identification card (usually a driver’s license) and be photographed.
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security encouraged a movement toward “inherently safer technology.” This means hazardous or explosive materials used in the treatment of water and wastewater are more carefully protected or eliminated. For example, many utilities are eliminating the use of potentially explosive chlorine gas, which is used as a disinfectant and delivered on tractor-trailers and in smaller tanks.
  • AZWARN is part of a national movement toward cooperation among water and wastewater utilities in time of need or a disaster. If Scottsdale Water has an emergency, such as a power outage, and requires a generator then the city can communicate that information to an alert system. Another city within the AZWARN network, such as Phoenix, can respond and rush to deliver a generator. The 23 Arizona utilities, including eight of the AMWUA cities, have a standing agreement about how to reimburse the cost of delivering that assistance once the emergency is over.

AMWUA cities recognize that water professionals are an integral part of emergency planning for large and small emergencies and make sure their employees are ready to respond.

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit .