Pandemic Diaries: Water Utilities’ Perspectives and Crisis Response (VOL. 1)

by Rebecca Shanahan
Wave Blue
Dec 02, 2020

During the early months of the pandemic, representatives from all management levels within WaterStart member utilities convened regularly to discuss challenges and potential solutions to the Covid-19 crisis.  These discussions are summarized in five volumes titled Pandemic Diaries and will be updated as the pandemic evolves and, eventually, resolved.

VOLUME 1: Covid19 Communications- Managing Complex & Conflicting info in a Rapidly Changing Environment

The abundance of conflicting information from governments and other organizations concerning the pandemic presented a special set of challenges. Adding to the confusion, many of the WaterStart members were forced to suspend all nonessential services at the peak of the crisis. With social distancing and a reduced workforce, effectively communicating with staff and customers became imperative.  Members shared some of the solutions implemented and key takeaways.

One member established a virtual incident room with staff trained to address emergencies (in some instances, excluding SCADA systems).  This was achieved with some success using an ongoing Skype connection.  Another member used texts and email alerts.  The information pushed to a web application with any associated change to logistics being updated daily.  Some members are considering adopting a full Emergency Management system.

One member noted a concern related to field crews.  Are they feeling isolated and abandoned? How are they coping and what support should be instituted to ensure they are safe and continually engaged in the changing environment? Many field crews were receiving a great deal of pushback from the general public because they were still working during lockdown.  Managing public perception became one solution in ensuring field crews were supported.  It was further noted that it was important to provide all levels of staff a voice to allow for the facilitation of new solutions to doing business.

In addition to identifying ways for communicating among a new workforce structure, WaterStart members discussed the need to effectively communicate with customers.  Both the safety of the drinking water and a clear understanding of service expectations needed to be communicated more regularly than under normal operating conditions. These communications needed to relay facts about the effectiveness of disinfection of potable water, any delays in response times, emergency shut off delays, inspection delays, etc.  One WaterStart member noted the need to expedite the creation of a digital process to ensure efficient processing of new construction permits among all agencies involved in the process.

Key takeaways:

  • Information relayed to staff needs to be (when possible) consistent and current.
  • Organizational policies, procedures and decision making processes moving forward must be flexible and adept to fast changing circumstances.
  • Utilities must evaluate and be prepared to new ways of doing business in rapidly changing environments. This includes the need for staff and management to be receptive and trained in new tools and business practices.
  • A reliance on the internet, virtual platforms, and cloud-based data is now more apparent and should be considered as evolving normals when preparing future emergency response plans.
  • People’s behavior, attitudes, and fears must be acknowledged. Create a venue or methodology for sharing concerns and solutions.
  • Workplace health and safety procedures must be communicated and protocols well executed to ensure individua and team operations are protected.
  • Develop relevant communications as part of a future pandemic response plan


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