Is Your Utility Prepared for an Emergency?

By now, you’ve likely heard that the flooding in Louisiana is the worst disaster the US has seen since Hurricane Sandy occurred four years ago. The devastation and loss of life is astounding; in one area of Livingston Parrish, 31 inches of rain were recorded in 15 hours (the equivalent of a 1000-year storm.) If you had less than 15 hours to vacate your home in the face of historic flooding, where would you go? What would you take with you? Would you be able to communicate with your family members during the emergency to make sure everyone was safe?

September is National Preparedness Month, which serves as a reminder that there’s no better time than now to start preparing for a disaster. While the national campaign encompasses all facets of preparedness, utilities in particular should be preparing for emergencies and practicing their responses. Although the risk of failure can be minimized with good engineering, situations will arise where no amount of engineering will prevent malfunctions. While those emergency situations tend to happen abruptly and without warning, preparedness can help minimize damages from a variety of disasters, including the effects of climate change.

While the EPA and your state regulatory agency require emergency response plans, keeping the plans current can be a struggle. Furthermore, hazard scenarios are rarely practiced in live drills. So, what can water and wastewater utilities do to improve their resilience? The EPA has developed a number of resources that utilities can use to increase their preparedness, including risk assessment programs, financial/economic planning tools, tips on resource sharing between municipal partners, and funding sources for hazard mitigation/response. For more information on the resources that EPA has to offer, visit their website.

Conducting regular drills to assess your utility’s response to an emergency can be very beneficial. The exercise, as well as an after action review to assess a utility’s response to a hazard, can lead to better emergency planning and will expose any gaps in the emergency response plan. Don’t get frustrated if your organization doesn’t respond well on the first attempt; the point of the exercise is to find your weaknesses and learn how to improve on them. If your utility is struggling with where to get started, consider reviewing the guiding principles provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program. FEMA has also developed a toolkit for local and regional critical infrastructure owners that is packed full of good information about planning and implementing an emergency exercise.

While utility owners can’t plan for every unknown, they certainly can identify emergency events, conduct an exercise, analyze the response, and thereby increase their resiliency. During National Preparedness Month, all utilities should take the time to assess their ability to respond to emergency situations. Like any new challenge, the first step towards greater reliability and resilience is often the toughest. Use the latest tragedy in Louisiana as your motivation and take that step today.

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