Two mid-sized Indiana communities have protocols similar to the approach taken by Columbus City Utilities when issuing a citywide boil-water order.
Steve Poulos, director of the Valparaiso city utilities, said his department has not experienced what Columbus went through over the weekend after a city well tested positive for E. coli.
However, Poulos said Valparaiso has several notification tools to use in the event of a water main break or other disruption that could cause the need for a boil-water order. The city utilizes a “Valpo Next” Facebook page for notifications. Depending on how big the area affected is, Valparaiso may place door tags with information at individual homes, he said.
The utility issues a press release to print and electronic media and uses an emergency-notification system similar to Everbridge where residents receive a phone call, text or email, he said. The city keeps its website up to date and its customer-service workers are notified to answer questions for customers, he said.
Story continues below gallery
“We try to hit as many tools as we can, but not everyone is on social media,” Poulos said. “There’s no perfect way of doing this. Sometimes word of mouth is the most effective way that information gets to everyone.”
The Columbus water utility followed some of the same protocols as Bloomington city utilities in the event of a mass emergency notification about a boil order, said Jon Callahan, Bloomington City Utilities public affairs specialist.
There are different scenarios that Bloomington works within on boil-water orders, such as planned work on water lines in a limited area, which calls for door hangers to be placed at homes to notify them of precautions, Callahan said. In these instances, residents know in advance the work is going to happen, when the boil order will be issued and generally how long it will last.
In the case of a water main break, the Bloomington utility will notify print, electronic and social media, hang door hangers in the limited area affected and notify the Everbridge emergency alert system, Callahan said.
When notifying an entire city, it’s impossible to go door to door with notifications, so Bloomington utilities would turn to the print, electronic and social media outlets, including Twitter, to make the notification, Callahan said. Part of Bloomington’s protocol is to send the notification through Everbridge when media outlets are notified, he said.
“With that kind of situation, you do the best you can with the resources you have available to you,” Callahan said of a citywide warning. “In that case, the media is your best option.”
Columbus utilities turned to the media on Friday afternoon to notify its customers that a boil-water advisory was being issued following an E. coli scare in the city’s water system, which was later determined to be a “false positive” test.
Even though the city utilities have assured residents that the water was never unsafe to drink or contaminated, some city residents have continued to question the way residents were notified and accused the city of not using effective methods to protect them.
Utility director answers questions
The Columbus City Council dealt with the city’s water issue directly Tuesday night by asking utilities director Keith Reeves to update council members on the city’s water supply, which has been deemed safe and free of contamination, and to answer questions.
Reeves explained the chain of events which began with a test result on June 15 in the city water that was positive for E. coli, which was later ruled to be a “false positive.” Additional testing of the city’s 15 water production wells resulted in a city well on the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds property being shut down after testing positive for the bacteria.
“Bacteriological sampling of a water system is a delicate process and is prone to false positives,” Reeves said in a written statement sent to media before the meeting.
Columbus has as many as three “false positive” readings a year, including for E. coli bacteria, the statement said. Because of this, state law allows utilities 24 hours to retest the water lines before any public notification, it said.
The positive test at the fairgrounds well resulted in IDEM requiring the boil order, which was sent by e-mail to city leaders and The Republic at 4:15 p.m. Friday and placed on the newspaper’s website and social media pages soon afterward.
The 24-hour time period between the initial test results and issuing of the boil order has caused consternation among some residents, who contend they were unknowingly drinking contaminated water.
During Tuesday night’s council meeting, Nancy Ray of Columbus, a former Bartholomew County Health Department nurse, questioned why Reeves and the city did not notify the public immediately when the results showed a positive E. coli result on June 15.
“Did you and your family drink the water?” she asked.
Reeves said “absolutely,” and explained in a later interview that he was consuming tap water during the time period between the first testing result on Thursday and the boil order notice going out Friday afternoon.
Ray then asked why the city utility would wait until Friday afternoon for the boil order after the utility and health department offices were closed and unavailable to release information.
She said she had been sick through the week, and challenged a statement read by Councilman Tim Shuffett from Columbus Regional Hospital that said officials there had seen no cases of E. coli infections.
“The hospital doesn’t have any reported cases because people didn’t know to go to the hospital,” she said.
Russ Poling of Columbus said he was relieved to learn the water had not been contaminated before the boil order, but was concerned about how people were notified. He recounted how he had made juice drinks on Friday from tap water for a grandchild, but dumped out the liquid when he learned of the boil order.
Poling said he is signed up for the Everbridge emergency notification system in Bartholomew County, but information about the water boil order was not placed there until 8 p.m. Friday.
He learned about the boil order from someone who saw it on The Republic’s Facebook page Friday afternoon and questioned why the warning wasn’t distributed more widely. He asked why the information was not placed on the city and city utilities website quickly.
“A phone call to The Republic is not enough,” he said.
The newspaper posted the information online Friday afternoon after obtaining some additional information from Reeves.
The boil order was posted on the city website by about 6 p.m. Friday, but was not posted on the city utilities website that night as Reeves said it was outdated and he could not update it without technical assistance.
Notices were published on the city and utility websites after the advisory was lifted, however.
Reeves said the “Tier 1” notification that IDEM requires in the case of an E. coli contamination calls for the utility to hand or direct-deliver the message to customers or to mail the notice to customers, neither of which was feasible in getting the information out quickly.
The other option allowed by the state is to place the notice in the newspaper where the utility serves customers, which is what was done, he said.
IDEM has agreed that notifying the media fulfilled the city utility’s responsibilities, and the state agency sent out an email on Monday saying the utility had followed required protocols under state law.
IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed said local media are the most common methods used for the Tier 1 response required of the Columbus utility in this instance, but communities have many options to get information out.
The Everbridge notification, which is the emergency alert system Bartholomew County residents may sign up for to receive information about weather, police, fire or other emergencies, sent out the boil order at about 8 p.m. Friday.
Shannan Hinton, the county’s emergency management director, said she suspected Reeves became swamped responding to inquiries about the boil order and did not get a call made to her regarding Everbridge.
Reeves confirmed that was the case.
Once the boil order notice went out, Reeves said he was constantly on the phone and did not make the call to Everbridge. Instead, Hinton called him and placed the boil order on Everbridge, which was sent out to nearly 6,000 individuals Friday night.
“Shannon had my back,” Reeves said.
There is no requirement in the IDEM protocols or in state law to use an emergency management notification system in a water-contamination notice. Notice must be provided in a manner reasonably calculated to reach all persons served, Sneed said.
The city utility is reviewing its process in the notification procedure and Reeves said he is unsure how long that evaluation will take.
To sign up for Everbridge, Bartholomew County’s emergency management notification system, visit the city of Columbus website at columbus.in.gov and click on “sign up for emergency alerts” under the quick links panel.
Users may choose to be notified on their home phone, cell, business phone, email, text messages and more about a variety of situations, such as severe weather, unexpected road closures, missing persons, and evacuation of buildings or neighborhoods.
Individuals with disabilities who need assistance can register by calling 812-379-1500 or emailing email@example.com.