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Here’s what two utilities learnt from dealing with disasters

The effects of climate change and ageing infrastructure have made emergency situations more commonplace, but managing the impact of major events such as bushfires on water quality and supply is highly contextual. 

In a webinar hosted by the Australian Water Association’s Victorian branch recently, experts from a number of Victorian water utilities spoke about preparing for emergency events, maintaining essential services and managing the aftermath.

One of the clear messages was that responding to disasters – whether a bushfire or global pandemic – requires nuance and flexibility. No two events are the same and the impacts will be wide and varied depending on the location. 

East Gippsland Water Treatment and Environment Systems Officer Rachael Brownstein discussed the 2019–2020 East Gippsland bushfires and how the utility responded to what was an unprecedented event. 

With the utility’s nine water supply zones simultaneously impacted by intense fires, Brownstein said it was important that people across the organisation worked together.

“We set up an incident management team made up of representatives from various departments,” she said.

“This allowed for close liaison with the emergency services managing the fires at the time. 

“It also allowed for a coordinated approach in terms of how we would manage the incident, given that all nine systems were affected. We had 31 staff involved in the incident management team.”

Brownstein said servicing the township of Mallacoota during the bushfires presented a range of significant challenges. 

“One of the biggest decisions was about what our service was going to be for our customers during the bushfire event,” she said. 

“One of the first challenges we had to face in [Mallacoota] was keeping up with the demand for water. As you can imagine, we had customers and the Country Fire Authority madly trying to put out fires with water.

“In order to supply water to Mallacoota and other townships, we would have to change the operations of our water treatment plant. This would mean supplying water to towns that did not meet Australian Drinking Water Guideline standards.”

After deciding to issue a boiled water notice to the community, Brownstein said the next challenge was communicating with a township that had been cut off.  

“Mallacoota was completely under threat of fires. There was no time to knock on doors or letter drop,” she said. 

“We had to use other forms of communication for the boiled water alert. This meant utilising the Victoria Emergency app, SMS, radio and other forms of communication.

“Also, we had to utilise the Australian Defence Force to transfer in other resources to be able to help our staff. This also had to occur when we took samples from our systems.”

Roles and responsibilities

Melbourne Water Security and Emergency Management Specialist Wayne Charlton spoke about the utility’s experience with the March 2019 bushfires in Victoria, stating that clear management arrangements were crucial to ensuring an effective response to disasters. 

“When it comes to these events … we need to be clear about who has accountability for what,” he said. 

“While Melbourne Water had an incident management team set up, it's important to make sure the team understands straight up that they are not the statutory fire firefighters, it's not their job to fight the fire. That's the responsibility of fire agencies. 

“The real role of Melbourne water was managing water quality and quantity. Our role was to plan contingency work for water quality and supply.”

Charlton said incident liaison was also key, as it helped to prioritise decision-making and subsequent actions. 

“It’s also important to have an incident liaison officer to share information between the team at the utility, and the incident teams looking after the fires,” he said. 

“It’s important to understand water agencies within the context of the disaster, we have to be able to focus on water quality and quantity.”

To learn more, watch the full ‘Dealing with Disasters’ webinar here