Montana Water Center Interviews Dusti Lowndes about MT WARN

MT WARN Provides Emergency Support to Communities

Catastrophic events such as flood and fire can challenge human and technical resources when those events threaten a community’s infrastructure or its ability to provide essential services. All of us count on emergency service workers and other support services to guard against disaster to provide essential services and supplies, and repair damage as soon as possible after it happens.Among the most important resources we have are our drinking water and wastewater facilities. As these are often near surface water sites, they are vulnerable to floods, making drinking water especially susceptible to contamination. Local water systems can be overwhelmed and have disrupted service for many reasons including massive water leaks, floods and excessive demand such as for fighting a major fire. Communities can find themselves without the necessary number of technical experts and equipment to get the utility back into service quickly. That’s where MT WARN comes in. It is Montana’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network.Recently we spoke with Dusti Lowndes of Montana DEQ about MT WARN. Based out of Kalispell, Dusti is DEQ’s Public Water Supply Security & Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and serves on the MT WARN Steering Committee.

Q: What is the purpose of MT WARN?

A: Let me first say that WARN is a program initiated and supported nationally for the past three years by the EPA, American Water Works Association, National Rural Water Association, Midwest Assistance, Water Environment Federation and many more. Currently forty seven states have their own state WARNs. Montana’s WARN has been active since 2008. It provides a method whereby water/wastewater utilities members that anticipate or have sustained damages from natural or human-caused incidents can provide and receive emergency aid and assistance in the form of personnel, equipment, materials, and other services from other water/wastewater utilities. The objective of this network is to provide rapid, short-term deployment of services to restore the critical operations of the affected water/wastewater utility.

Q: How do utilities participate?

A: The backbone of the WARN concept is the Mutual Aid and Assistance Agreement. The Mutual Aid and Assistance Agreement provides for network activation, reimbursement, liability and other issues as mutually agreed upon by participating utilities. Keep in mind this program is strictly voluntary. Even after signing an agreement a utility is not required to provide requested assistance.

However, WARN networks are built upon certain realities. For example, water utilities require specialized resources to sustain operations, so often relief can only come from a comparably equipped utility with certified water operators or personnel who understand the situation and how to operate water utilities and protect public health. And the utility’s employees may also be negatively impacted by an emergency, so a local response may not be possible, let alone adequate. With local or regional resources available, we can have help in place before the federal government can respond and even before an emergency is declared. This can save money, property and lives.

Q: Has MT WARN responded to an emergency yet?

A: Fortunately no, but we have been able to share small specific event information with each other. It is just a matter of time before our first active response, so we continue to prepare and stay vigilant. A good example of how the network could operate comes from Colorado WARN. A salmonella outbreak occurred in Alamosa, Colorado and the CoWARN was activated on March 19, 2008 to assist. The source of the contamination was quickly pinpointed to the drinking water system. Although the ground water source was not contaminated, contamination was found throughout the distribution system and storage tank.

During this incident, 23 water and wastewater utilities, industry support organizations/agencies and the State of Nebraska (through the Mid-America Alliance) assisted Alamosa. Work included public notices, phases of system flushing, disinfection, sampling, and massive distribution of water to residents from other potable sources. CoWARN members provided technical expertise, manpower, equipment and supplies to Alamosa that were critical to proper system disinfection and water sampling throughout the flushing events and into system recovery. Often the crews of CoWARN worked 12 hour shifts. Nearly a month later, all restrictions were lifted and residents were informed the water was safe to drink.

Q: In Montana, if a water utility responds to a request for help from another, is the responding utility reimbursed? If so, how will that work?

A: Oh definitely! That is why the signed mutual aid agreement by the participating member utilities is so important because it spells out liability and reimbursement concerns. In our operational plan, there are forms and a checklist to guide requesting and responding utilities with the process. The systems will need to communicate with each other after they have found who can assist and get some details ironed out such as when, where, who, what, and how. We are also holding training sessions for the members and will be conducting table top exercises to practice protocols and methods.

Q: What’s the current status of the Montana WARN network?

A: The network is growing and we recently launched a website that has a public area for news and events, as well as the secure log-in side for members and agencies. Approximately a dozen utilities currently belong to the Montana WARN network, but its strength will come from greater participation from more of the thousands of water/wastewater systems in Montana. Anyone interested can go to the website and contact members of the steering committee for more information. Being a member of this network broadens the sense of people helping each other and sharing resources, and it is governed by the utilities members, themselves.

Editor’sNote:  This interview originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of Montana Water News as published by the Montana Water Center


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