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Before an Incident—Preparing for an Advisory

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To issue a drinking water advisory, a water system must act quickly and in close coordination within its organization and among its partner agencies. Preparation is essential. Most of the work can be done in advance of a planned event or unplanned incident.

Pre-incident planning allows a water system to design advisories and issue them through a predetermined process. Advance preparation speeds delivery of accurate and useful information to affected customers. This information can be reused for future incidents.

Water advisories are complicated and may involve different partners depending on the type of incident taking place. Key partners as you plan for an incident are your local emergency planner and health department. It is also important to consider who might be your partners in the event of a biological incident versus a chemical or radiological incident. Some incidents might require the involvement of multiple agencies, such as those involving chemicals and toxins.

Although chemical contamination incidents may occur less frequently, these incidents may require significant efforts to address public health issues. Such incidents may require the involvement of government officials to help assess the extent of the problem, control the source of the contaminant, provide supplemental water sources, and restore the system. Significant communication challenges may exist in maintaining the trust of the community while trying to address concerns associated with chemical exposures and provide the most current information to those affected. This requires collaboration between toxicologists and chemical contamination event specialists.

For additional information on common water contaminants, see EPA’s Water Contaminant Information Tool (WCIT). The WCIT has communication-specific offerings, like the “Information Officer Report” and the “Utility Response Considerations” sections, which summarize contaminant information at a high level to help public information officers communicate with the public and draft advisories.

Checklist: Before an Incident

Organizing for Drinking Water Advisories

  • Conduct an assessment of assets and resources needed to issue a drinking water advisory.
  • Review state regulations and guidance for public notification and the EPA Revised Public Notification Handbook. (Remember to use Federal Public Notification language when developing advisories when there are violations of National Primary Drinking Water Regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This information can be found in 40 Code of Federal Regulations Part 141 [subpart Q, appendix B].)
  • Consult your organization’s strategic communication plan.
  • Plan for media activities.
  • Integrate communications as part of your emergency response standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Collaborating with Partners

  • Identify critical and wholesale customers.
  • Identify technical resources and subject matter experts for chemicals, toxins, and microbial incidents.
  • Record and regularly update contact information.
  • Develop a communication network of public agencies and private entities for collaboration during an advisory.
  • Meet and discuss protocols and resources for drinking water advisories with agency partners and community organizations.
  • Plan and conduct regular communication among partner agencies and private organizations.

Developing a Message

  • Collaborate with your communication network to develop messages for various advisories and specific audiences.
  • Certain types of advisories require the use of specific language developed by EPA. See Public Notification, Safety, and Preparedness in Appendix C.
  • Determine the best channels to deliver the messages.
  • Translate and format messages for special populations (e.g., non-English speakers, visually impaired).

Conducting Exercises

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