Planning for the unexpected

Today’s water utilities must be prepared for all sorts of risks— both natural and manmade threats — but expecting the unexpected can be daunting. In Framingham, Mass., a multi-year business continuity effort aims to prepare utility staff for whatever emergencies may come their way.

Apr 1st, 2019
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Framingham’s hands-on approach to emergency response

Today’s water utilities must be prepared for all sorts of risks — both natural and manmade threats — but expecting the unexpected can be daunting. In Framingham, Mass., a multi-year business continuity effort aims to prepare utility staff for whatever emergencies may come their way.

Jim Barsanti, assistant director of water and wastewater engineering for the city of Framingham, believes traditional emergency preparedness is no longer enough. “The world has changed so much in the last two decades, for obvious reasons,” he noted. Emergency preparedness “has to be a concerted effort,” he added.

Located about 20 miles west of Boston, Framingham is home to some 70,000 residents. Like many cities, Framingham’s water and wastewater utility comprises several assets and facilities. “We need to make sure we go through a process of identifying those facilities that are important, identifying the threats, and identifying how we’re going to mitigate those threats,” Barsanti said. The goal, he said, is to maintain business operations while an event is occurring so the utility can continue to deliver its services to customers. “But it’s also to be able to react appropriately with the right forces in terms of our staff and our equipment, and to be able to deploy [them] rapidly and in the right places,” he added.

Kate Novick (left) and Jim Barsanti (center) discuss emergency response planning with Angela Godwin.

Assessing Risk

Kate Novick, managing director of Gradient Planning, is working with the city of Framingham on its emergency preparedness plan and helping the utility to focus its efforts. “We’re looking at what are the most likely emergencies to happen and also what are the most consequential emergencies that could happen within the realm of possibilities,” she explained.

These can include “natural” risks, like extreme flooding, snow and ice, and hurricanes, Barsanti said. “Those are the types of things that are very likely to occur in the New England area.” But equally important are potential manmade threats. “In our modern society a lot of our equipment and technology are overseen and monitored [by SCADA] so we know what our system is doing in real time. Folks that have nefarious thoughts, if they can get into these systems, they can create some really big problems for us, so we have to be very vigilant,” he said.

Having an emergency response plan isn’t just something that’s “nice to have”; it’s required by state and federal agencies, said Novick. “That’s one of the primary reasons that these utilities are having emergency plans and risk assessments. But another reason is that it supports their utility management,” she added. A good emergency response plan gives utilities information about what’s most likely to happen and what the consequences might be. It also provides an opportunity to brainstorm what could be done to control and mitigate risk. “And for the things that we don’t have any control over — like a hurricane, for example — we create plans for how to respond to that and minimize the consequences of that when it happens, not after it happens,” she said.

There are some useful tools available to help cities identify and prioritize potential emergencies — and how to tackle them. One is the Risk Assessment Methodology and Critical Asset Protection (RAMCAP) standard developed by the American Water Works Association (AWWA). According to Novick, it helps utilities perform a risk assessment to identify what’s most important in terms of natural disasters, technological risks, and other types of emergencies that could happen. “The standards are really valuable resources to make sure you’re not spinning wheels or spending time that could be better spent in another way,” said Novick.

Practice Makes Perfect

Part of Novick’s preparedness training strategy is to bring the theoretical to life through a series of specially crafted tabletop exercises in which staff members play out a scenario. “We’ve done one with extreme flooding because it has happened in our community,” said Barsanti. In that scenario, he said, other things may occur — like water main breaks, wastewater backups, or difficulty getting across your community because of flooding. “Kate works with us as a facilitator and kind of walks us through the whole process — and she doesn’t tell us anything before the event,” he explained. “She lets a little bit out at a time.” Suddenly, there might be a main break. Then unexpected flooding. With every new twist, the team must think on their feet and decide how to react. “The adrenaline actually starts to flow,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”

Framingham, like most communities, deals with emergencies quite often — water main breaks, wastewater issues, snow and ice. “We have to respond quickly, effectively, and efficiently,” he said — and they are well trained to do so. “We have all the foundational things we need. It’s just, we need to make sure we’re always tuned up and we’re always thinking about what we can do better, how we can provide these services better — especially under duress.”

Barsanti credits Novick with helping to make emergency preparedness part of his utility’s mindset. “It needs to be part of your business culture just as much as everything else that goes into keeping your system operating every day,” he said. Meeting with Novick routinely from month to month and year to year, he said, “keeps this practice that we have very alive and ongoing and changing as we need to change it.”

Having an active, up-to-date emergency response program requires a time commitment, but it can vary. “You could scale it to what time you have reasonably available, assuming that it’s going to take some time and it’s not going to take no time,” said Novick. For example, you could dedicate a couple of hours a month, beginning with a kickoff meeting to discuss what the most critical emergency preparedness activities would be. You could tackle those items in subsequent monthly meetings along with some supplemental homework or other activities.

Whether you go this route or not, emergency response plans should really be updated annually — or anytime something significant in your utility changes, Novick advised. One very important piece of information to keep current is your emergency contacts list. “That list is probably the most important part of the emergency response plan,” she added. In fact, it’s a good idea to review it quarterly to ensure it’s up to date.

At the end of the day, making sure his staff is prepared for an emergency is something Barsanti is passionate about. “It’s important; we need to think about our most important people and those are the members of our community,” he said. “They depend on us to be able to provide these services and … to be ready to address any type of emergency that we may have.” WW

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