Organizing for Drinking Water Advisories
When planning for a drinking water advisory, consider:
- A range of scenarios
- Normal and challenging operating conditions
- Time of day, day of the week, and season of the year
Understanding your system’s operations, vulnerabilities, stakeholders, partners, and audiences is an important first step in your planning efforts. Begin by evaluating the following:
- Existing relationships among partners, including public health, public safety, schools, local businesses, and local government. See Table 1 for examples.
- Internal and external audiences and stakeholders.
- Information needs of different audiences.
- Existing communication plans and resources (e.g., bill inserts, Consumer Confidence Reports, media contacts).
- Skills, technologies, staff, time, money, and mechanisms for rapidly accessing and using financial resources to obtain needed services (e.g., existing contracts, credit card use/limits) to support an exchange of information with target audiences and agencies. See Table 1 for examples.
- Resources for public outreach, such as availability of social media channels, web development, Reverse 911, e-mail alerts, and existing contracts and spending/use limitations to support the mechanisms.
- Potential use of tools already developed by partners (e.g., use of weather alert systems or school notification system).
- Existing requirements set by state or local agencies or by the water system’s governing body.
- EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs), including Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) or Treatment Technique requirements. NPDWRs include Public Notification requirements that provide Standard Health language to be used in the event of an exceedance of a standard (40 Code of Federal Regulations Part 141 [subpart Q, appendix B]).
- In situations when unregulated contaminants are found in the drinking water, EPA Health Advisories (1-day, 10-day, lifetime) may be available. However, consult with the state or local health department about how to best interpret the significance of the level, about more relevant state criteria, or whether the Health Advisory is up to date.
- Safety Data Sheet (SDS)external icon and National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA)external icon information for certain chemicals.
- Access to EPA’s Water Contaminant Information Tool (WCIT)external icon and ATSDR’s Toxic Substances Portal.
- Threats and infrastructure vulnerabilities.
- Emergency response plans (ERPs).
Once you’ve conducted the assessment, it is important to identify the gaps and additional resources needed to meet responsibilities for issuing drinking water advisories.
Know Your Primacy Agency
Every state is unique. Know your state SDWA primacy agency’s practices, communication channels, and responsibilities related to drinking water advisories.
Each state that has primacy has specific regulations for public notification and information sharing. Local public health and water systems personnel need information for a 24/7 point of contact at the primacy agency.
For information on state-specific contact information, regulatory requirements, guidance, and templates see the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA).external icon See Appendix C: Online Resources, Primacy Agency for more information.
There is federal guidance for developing public notices under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and an EPA-developed Public Notification Handbook pdf icon[PDF – 115 pages]external icon that provides guidance on regulatory requirements.
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).
Where to Find Help
If your water system does not have a strategic communication plan, see Appendix C: Online Resources, Risk Communication for more information that may be helpful in developing one.
A strategic communication plan is the foundation for decision-making and resource allocation, both ongoing and in times of crisis.
A strategic communication plan helps a water system prepare to issue a drinking water advisory by identifying ahead of time:
- Who will lead the communication efforts, taking into consideration the size of the affected area and type of contaminant (e.g., microbial, chemical, toxin). In some circumstances, federal agencies working with authorities of the Safe Drinking Water Act can play a supportive or leadership role.
- Notification procedures between agencies, utilities, and associations (including up-to-date rosters.
- Institutions (e.g., businesses, schools, hospitals) that need to be notified; maintain current contact information.
- Critical issues for the water system (e.g., risk, safety, quality, infrastructure).
- Points of integration for operations and communication SOPs.
- Communication objectives (e.g., information, preparedness).
- Modes of communication that are locally preferred and effective (e.g., most frequently viewed TV channels or radio stations, telephonic community notification system when possible, notification through schools).
- Actions required to carry out communication strategies.
- Plans for situations involving loss of power.
See Information for Communication Planning word icon[DOCX – 1 page] for more information.
Effective Risk Communication
Drinking water advisories are a form of risk communication. The protocols for issuing an advisory must effectively describe:
- When to distribute an advisory (and when not to).
- What information to provide.
- Who is(are) the specific audience(s) for that incident (including susceptible populations).
- How to recognize and communicate the conclusion of the incident.
- Where to distribute messages.
- What actions must be taken.
- Why these actions must be taken.
- For more information on effective risk communication, see Appendix C: Online Resources, Risk Communication.
Ask media outlets about their timing. How long will it take them to post and announce information on websites and announce on television? Knowing their news cycles and deadlines is critical to planning. Also ask how they would use maps and graphics to show the advisory area.
Small System Note
If a press list or wire service is not available, work with partners and local government to set up access for communicating advisories to the media. Ask other partners if they already have such a list.
Successful advisories rely on multiple types of communication. A variety of communication methods, such as door hangers, media alerts, websites, social media, automated messages, and other methods of communication should be combined for an effective communication strategy. The media is a primary channel for public notification and is critical to issuing an advisory.
Planning for media activities can improve implementation of the advisory. Scope, scale, and severity determine the level of media involvement—the larger the incident, the larger the media effort. Factors to consider include the following:
- Timing: Consider the operations of your local media. Many media outlets are not able to respond on weekends or after hours. Contact local media outlets to understand their staffing, hours, news cycle and deadlines, or other limitations. Plan appropriately for media outlets and communication channels. For example, if an advisory is issued during business hours or commuting times, radio reaches homes, offices, and cars.
- Audiences: If an advisory covers a wide area, use a media release to multiple outlets. Smaller areas may call for use of specific media channels as well as other methods of communication. Audiences with special needs, such as a large population of people who speak little or no English, are part of the decisions about media, including ethnic media. See the Communicating with Susceptible Populations Worksheet word icon[DOCX – 5 pages]
- Channels: Identify the media outlets that cover specific areas of the water system service area and the region. In rural areas, television news may come out of a large urban area far away. Partners and their communication networks will have additional information about communication channels. Identify criteria on which to prioritize media outlets based on the scope, scale, and severity of the situation. For example, if an advisory is issued during working hours, radio, e-mails, social media, mass texting, and news websites may be the most immediate and viable outlets to use to distribute the message to the working public.
- Media Messages: Use the Message Mapping Template word icon[DOCX – 1 page]
to prepare press releases and statement templates specific to the water system and different scenarios. These materials can be generalized and put into electronic or paper formats (see other templates in the Tools & Templates: Before an Incident—Preparing for an Advisory section). Insert the prepared materials into emergency response plans (ERPs) and protocols.
- Approval: Note the procedures on how media materials will be reviewed and who will approve them. Work with partners in the communication network and understand their approval process.
- Other Information: Include external sources of additional information in media materials. Contact names and numbers for primacy agencies and local public health departments are good sources for reporters. Links to primacy agencies and health departments can be added to media websites to help answer customer questions. Work with partners to identify additional information sources. See Appendix C: Online Resources, Risk Communication.
Designate and Train Spokespersons
The spokesperson’s role is to communicate directly with media through briefings and interviews and to interact with the public. Designate a primary and backup spokesperson during planning activities. The spokesperson may be the water system’s Public Information Officer (PIO), a manager assigned to communication, or someone within the communication network, such as a local public health department representative. The spokesperson is someone in authority who is honest, credible, competent, accessible, and sensitive to public concerns. Use the Spokesperson Assessment Tool word icon[DOCX – 1 page]
to assist with choosing spokespersons.
The spokesperson must be ready to interpret scientific and technical information into clear language and must understand the water system’s operations. Professional training in media management, effective listening, and handling sensitive situations is helpful in preparing a spokesperson to be ready to meet the media and the public at any time.
Fill out toolbox templates before an advisory. Incorporate and regularly review and update the templates in your communication, ERP, and operations SOPs.
Considerations for Call Centers and Customer Service
Address potential call center issues in advisory protocols. Considerations include:
- Are there enough phone lines?
- Are other phone lines available if needed?
- Are off-site phone lines or call centers available?
- Is there a backup plan if phone lines are not available or power is out during an emergency response?
- Are there enough people to staff the call center 24/7, if needed?
- Do you have a sample Q&A page to prepare staff for likely questions that would come in from the public?
SOPs must be clear and allow users to take actions based on the information they will have at the time. SOPs should establish clear chains of command and communication so that authorized personnel can make situation-specific decisions. SOPs may include the following:
- Purpose: Objective of the SOP (e.g., delineation of authority, roles, and procedures).
- Scope: People involved and the authority and responsibilities they have.
- Communication Structure: Organizational chart that demonstrates levels of command and communication linkages.
- Protocols: Procedures for action within the SOP’s purpose.
- Training: Requirement(s) and schedule.
- Exercises: Procedures and schedule.
- Oversight/Update: Person(s) responsible for assuring compliance with and maintenance of SOPs.
Customer Call Center
Call centers and customer service (CS) staff are on the front lines during a large scale advisory. Call centers must have the resources to respond to customers above and beyond normal operations and hours. Information provided through the call center must be accurate, timely, and consistent.
The actions described below apply to local government call lines such as 411, community lines such as 211, or other agencies that may respond to an advisory.
- Briefings: Meet with call center and CS staff before issuing the advisory and provide essential information on the scope, scale, and severity of the advisory.
- Scripts: Provide scripts to call center and CS staff developed with essential information and frequently asked questions (FAQs).
- Updates: Meet with call center and CS staff to check for adequate staffing and history of customer concerns. Add and revise information in scripts as needed.
- Resources: Ensure enough phone lines and staff for the scope and scale of the advisory. Staff will need current information and referral contacts. Determine whether contracts are or should be in place to expand service that may be needed for a large advisory.
- Debriefing: Include call center and CS staff in the advisory debriefing to identify communication activities and resources.