Be Prepared For The Unexpected

Emergencies are never planned, but a good plan will help you get back on track.

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Welcome to January. It’s actually Nov. 11, and as I write this, the snow is piling ever higher on the deck in front of me. The view is from my dining room table. Northern Wisconsin got hit with an unusually strong snowstorm for so early in the season. The snow started filtering in from the West yesterday morning, with the Eastern sky an impenetrable gray barrier to the rising sun.

Now, I grew up in Wisconsin, and while I don’t love the cold, I’m certainly capable of dealing with it. But this storm is early, and it’s dumping a lot of snow, and I still have to take my pier out of the water, and the curbstop that shuts off the water to the hose bib at my garage is 6 feet down a 4-inch pipe in the middle of my yard and it won’t shut off. So the timing of this particular storm is poor.

Winter snuck up on me. I was still in fall maintenance mode, never made it to some important winter preparations, and now I’m paying the price. It’s pretty easy to draw some parallels between my predicament and the one so many sewer and water utilities are facing across North America.

We all face storms, sometimes in a very literal sense, and sometimes in the form of combined forces and events that wreak havoc on everything in their path. Your utilities most likely have and no doubt will again face these storms, and if you’re not prepared, they can cause serious problems.

Clarksville, Tenn., profiled in this issue, is a great example of the damage storms can cause and how preparedness can pay huge dividends. The city was inundated with floodwaters after a major storm in 2010. When the storm hit, combined sewer flow surged, knocking out several lift stations and filling mainlines with countless yards of dirt and debris.

In the weeks just after the flood, crew members worked long hours getting the system functioning again. It took 30 months before the system was fully restored and functioning normally.

While it’s impossible to prevent a flood of this nature, you can be prepared. An emergency plan is a good start. Two important pieces Clarksville had in place were an emergency purchasing policy and good relationships with suppliers. Utility officials quickly found out that if they called around to get three quotes, the item they needed was often gone by the time they called back. The emergency purchasing policy enabled them to procure 14 diesel bypass pumps, which were delivered from a barge in San Francisco Bay to Tennessee in 28 hours.

Having contacts in place and being able to put faces with names – on both sides – also proved invaluable as it made it easier to call and get a quick response. Internally, all divisions worked well together and dedicated long hours to restoring system operations.

Back in Wisconsin, I was able to get ahold of a few friends – my own emergency plan – and coordinate my pier removal. It was a much smaller effort, and the potential consequences much less severe, but it illustrates the types of situations all of us, and all utilities, have to face from time to time.

I hope the Clarksville story contains a lesson or two that can help your utility when the next crisis takes shape.

Enjoy this month’s issue.


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