Water utility agency response networks come together for a unified cause

Water utility agency response networks come together for a unified cause
Kenyon Carter, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection Division of Water Resource Management, emphasizes the importance to managers for FlaWARN member utilities to provide their regulatory office with current contact information and to give timely post hurricane landfall facility operational status via the Department’s Event Tracking System, StormTracker.

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In 1991, a wall of wind from the mountains raged across the urban canyons of several East San Francisco Bay communities. Natives to the area were no strangers to seasonal northeasterlies. But no one was prepared for the effects of the hot, dry gusts that heightened a smoldering brush fire on an Oakland hillside into a conflagration overnight. 

It took nearly a week for some 400 fire engine companies and hundreds of agencies from all over California to get the fire under control. In that time, the “Diablo winds” killed or injured dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes and commercial structures worth more than $1 billion. 

There was insufficient coordination among agencies to respond to a catastrophic event of this singularity and size. 

Out of the ashes 

Within months of the disaster, a report issued by the California Governor’s office made one thing clear: If the state was going to be able to fight fires of this magnitude in the future, an effective water utility mutual aid system was essential. Seven Bay Area water utilities approved the first draft of a plan, and within a year over a hundred more in the California Coastal Region were on board. Within three years, the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (CalWARN) was launched statewide. 

During the next decade, Texas and Florida also adopted WARN systems based on the CalWARN model. Well versed in the risks that come with hurricane season, Florida previously had other emergency preparedness systems in place. But with over 1,300 miles of coastline, those systems weren't enough. Each season, Floridians pray that oncoming hurricanes will fizzle, or will fly high or wide around them. But now they are ready to go into immediate action in the event of a direct hit thanks to the WARN system. 

What FlaWARN is — and isn’t 

FlaWARN offers a way for all state water and wastewater utilities to provide each other with quick relief in the days following a major weather or catastrophic event. Help comes in the form manpower, equipment and supplies to restore service as safely and quickly as possible. 

FlaWARN is not a corporation, partnership or governmental entity. Through voluntary mutual aid agreements, members agree to provide assistance and protection to water supplies as a first priority, but do not agree to fill in for routine utility functions such as sending out boil water notices or restoring loss of service to individual customers. 

“During emergencies people want to help people, but government doesn’t want people to go out on their own so we provide them with an organized network,” says Carol Hinton, FlaWARN’s program administrator and associate director of University of Florida’s Center for Training, Research and Education for Environmental Occupations (UF TREEO). 

She emphasizes that the first order of business is to protect public health and the environment by repairing main breaks, containing hazardous materials, and minimizing wastewater spills that could contaminate water supplies. “We can live without electricity,” she says, “but we want to flush those toilets to prevent disease!” 

A key element to the success of the FlaWARN system is excellent communication among utilities and local and state agencies that support emergency operations. On the FlaWARN website, administration gets updates from StormTracker, the event tracking system developed by Kenyon Carter, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection Division of Water Resource Management. 

“StormTracker evolved from a paper format to an electronic application over a period of years,” Carter says. “Today it is a mature Internet-based system for collecting and disseminating emergency response and recovery information.” Wall-mounted monitors at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee track logistics by showing the “operational status of impacted water facilities as utilities progress through the recovery process.” 

But Hinton doesn’t rely solely on technology to keep in touch. She and Gary Williams, executive director of the Florida Rural Water Association, work together to help utilities keep lines of communication open with each other. Before, during, and after a hurricane, Hinton or Williams answer a call in the middle of the night on a personal cellphone or orchestrate conference calls among 50 utilities or more from the Emerald Coast panhandle to the Florida Keys. 

Who pays for this? 

Though partially funded by the Florida DEP via a federal homeland security grant to cover costs to administer the website, Florida water utilities embarked in FlaWARN with a spirit of not asking for money in return for help. “If I have people to help, I’ll send them,” Williams says. “Then when I need help, hopefully they’ll send help to me.” 

The main reason utilities have volunteered resources without up-front assurances of compensation is that in the first few days after an event, state and federal funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is not yet available or the bureaucratic process is too slow. They simply cannot afford to wait. 

“Sometimes there’s not time to ask for permission,” Williams says. “It slows things down. Our mission is to restore water and wastewater. If it’s not in compliance with bureaucratic policies, we ask for forgiveness.” 

This is not to say that funding policies are completely ignored. Many utilities have work order systems with FEMA reimbursable fees programmed into them to present a bill for services to sister utilities. Also, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a federal disaster funding program initiated by Florida Governor Lawton Chiles after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, now recognizes water and wastewater utilities as first responders along with firefighters, police, and health departments, giving them a formal avenue to seek reimbursement for helping out-of-state utilities. Hinton has three pre-season workshops scheduled around Florida to show utilities how to properly file for reimbursement through EMAC. 

FlaWARN as a model 

During the 2004-05 seasons, the five Gulf Coast states hosted nine named storms. All but two of them reached Category 3 level, holding maximum sustained winds of 111 to 129 mph. Carter characterized the FlaWARN utilities’ ready response to one hurricane after another during that time as being like CalWARN “on steroids!” 

Lucky for Mississippi and Louisiana, FlaWARN was in top form when Hurricane Katrina slammed hit in 2005. Florida water utilities responded within hours. Unfortunately, water utilities from other states had no mechanism to assist them. 

Robin Halperin, manager of Regulatory Compliance for Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, recalls the frustration. “The utility I worked for in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit tried to send assistance to the New Orleans Water and Sewer Department,” she says. “But due to the bureaucracy and red tape, we weren’t able to successfully send the much needed resources to assist these utilities.” 

But national leaders in the industry had watched FlaWARN succeed where others had not and decided to use it as an example of how other water utilities could respond to large-scale emergency events. 

“Following Hurricane Katrina, the American Water Works Association went around the country presenting the idea of a WARN network to help sister utilities,” Halperin says. Hinton and Williams, with Scott Kelly, former vice president for Water and Wastewater at JEA, a Jacksonville utility, and many Florida utility managers were invited to dozens of states to help support AWWA’s national program development. 

“Their guidance and assistance is what enabled Ohio and several other states to create WARN programs,” Halperin says. Today, the AWWA WARN website supports programs in every U.S. state and Canada. 

Reflecting on change 

WARN-ing has come a long way in technological advances and national outreach since that brush fire in the Oakland hills. Hinton emphasizes that the spirit of FlaWARN can be boiled down to a three-word catch phrase that she and Chris Roeder, a senior training specialist at UF TREEO in Gainesville, coined in the early days of FlaWARN — utilities helping utilities. 

Reflecting on changes she has seen over the years, Hinton gets to the heart of why WARNs work: “We started by the seat of our pants and we can still fly by the seat of our pants!"


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