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The Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox provides information on how to plan for, develop, implement, and evaluate drinking water advisories. The approach presented recognizes the differences in scope, scale, and severity of situations that trigger advisories—a main break, a hurricane, a drop in pressure, or intentional contamination. These differences affect the types of tools, planning, and communication used by drinking water systems.

This toolbox includes instructions on how to prepare before an event, what to do during an event, templates and tools to use, and recommendations for follow-up actions and assessments after an event. The purpose of the toolbox is to enable water systems to communicate effectively with partners and the public in order to protect public health.

Shows the process for preparing for, issuing, and following up after a drinking water advisory.

Figure 1: Toolbox Flow Chart. Shows the process for preparing for, issuing, and following up after a drinking water advisory. Click the image for a larger version.

Each toolbox section includes a checklist of steps. Not every step applies in all circumstances. Each section has a set of tools that applies to its content. The tools can be adapted by water systems to fit their needs.

Why Are Drinking Water Advisories Issued?

Water systems and state or local agencies issue drinking water advisories when they believe water quality is or may be compromised. Advisories tell individuals, schools, hospitals, businesses, and others about the situation and how to take immediate action.

Drinking water advisories:

  • Provide information— An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information but do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue an advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.

  • Encourage preparedness— Advisories may help customers prepare for planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to watch or listen for more information.

  • Recommend action— Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.

  • Meet public notification requirements— Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.

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Precautionary and Mandatory Advisories

State and federal regulations specify when drinking water advisories are required. In other instances, water systems or the local public health department may issue precautionary advisories at their discretion.

  • Precautionary advisories are issued as a protective measure.
  • Mandatory advisories are issued as required by state and federal law to protect public health.

Main Types of Advisories

  • Informational— Communicate planned or anticipated changes in water quality and provide advice on appropriate action.
  • Boil Water— Tells customers to boil water before use. Most common type of advisory. They may be precautionary if there is a potential threat to the drinking water supply, or they may be mandatory as required by state and federal regulations. Boil water advisories typically are issued because of concern about microbial contamination.
  • Do Not Drink— Tells customers to use an alternative source of water. Do Not Drink advisories are typically issued for chemical contamination.
  • Do Not Use— Warns customers not to use tap water for any purpose, including flushing toilets and bathing. Do Not Use advisories are typically used only in cases of known microbial, chemical, or radiological contamination when any contact, even with the skin, lungs, or eyes, can be dangerous. Such advisories are rare because of the risks associated with the lack of water for sanitation and fire protection.

Figure 2 shows the range of situations that might trigger a drinking water advisory and the type of advisory that would be issued in each situation.

Figure 2: Range of Situations for Drinking Water Advisories. Note: These are examples of potential reasons to issue an advisory; this is not intended to be a comprehensive list. Consult your primacy agency for more information.

Figure 2: Range of Situations for Drinking Water Advisories. Note: These are examples of potential reasons to issue an advisory; this is not intended to be a comprehensive list. Consult your primacy agency for more information. Click the image for a larger version.

Small Water Systems

Because small water systems often have less capacity to implement advisory protocols than larger systems, this toolbox also was designed and tested with small water systems in mind.

Implementing the actions described in this toolbox generally should not require outside support from consultants or others. However, building an effective network by collaborating with other public sector partners and community organizations will help small systems succeed in their efforts.

Suggestions for Small Systems

  • Identify and prioritize specific tools or sections from this toolbox to use.
  • Incorporate water advisory protocol planning into regular activities, such as sanitary surveys and updating emergency response plans (ERPs).
  • Build water advisory protocols into regular communication, such as customer updates.
  • Partner with local public health authorities and neighboring water systems

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