By Kathy Rodgers, State Lead Maine
Providing Assistance with No Back-Up Plan Puts Everyone at Risk.
Emphasis must be placed on ensuring staff are cross-trained and appropriate documentation is available for continuity in operations.
A town manager in Maine, who found himself suddenly in charge of a small community water system, had quite the harrowing experience recently. Unfortunately, this avoidable story is not uncommon. The small town’s water operator had suddenly taken ill and was hospitalized. The back-up operator had passed away six months ago. The community was quite remote, and the town manager was in desperate need of an operator who could help keep their two treatment plants operational. The system had several treatment phases including pre-chlorination, filtration, aeration, and fluoridation that needed to be monitored and maintained. After several days and several frantic calls later, they were connected to a licensed contract operator who was willing to drive two hours to investigate the situation.
Upon arrival, the contract operator was greeted by a very green public works employee who was set to be cross trained in the water department but had no working knowledge of the plants. The public works employee confessed the regular operator, now hospitalized, had told him that all the information was “all up here” as he pointed to his temple. It seemed the hospitalized operator had always felt his job was threatened and closely guarded operational information. That fear, which is often shared by undervalued operators, is unfortunate as it created a stressful situation for everyone left in his wake.
By the end of day one, the contract operator and the public works employee were able to determine where the maintenance logs and the test kits were located. The seasoned contract operator was successfully able to show the public works employee how to run the daily test and record the meter readings. Then the contract operator began searching for the operation and maintenance (O&M) manual or any standard operating procedures (SOPs), to figure out how the system worked, but to no avail. There were no clear procedures found to follow to ensure the system was running properly. Under stacks of unfiled paperwork, the contract operator was able to find an emergency response plan that hadn’t been updated in 18 years, which is recommended to be updated annually, but it was with very little detail and of little help. With the assistance of contract operator’s administrative office, they were able to piece together clues as to how the facilities operated through state records and other pieces of information.
The alarms started sounding by day two. Not that anyone really knew that alarms were sounding, as the hospitalized operator was the only one getting the notifications. It was upon arrival to the plant that the public work employee observed the chlorine tank had run dry. The proper ratio to prepare the chlorine solution was unknown. The fluoride pump appeared to be unplugged. Who knows why? The public works employee was untrained in how to properly handle these dangerous chemicals. The contract operator stepped in again to help batch the chemicals and get the chemical feeds pumping. The contract operator best recourse and advice was to encourage the town manager and the public works employee to reach out to their regular operator, while in the hospital, to get guidance. Not an ideal situation for anyone.
This emergency could have all been avoided and continuity in service could have easily been maintained by having an O&M manual readily available. The O&M manual serves not only as a tool for the operating and maintenance of the facilities for the personnel of the plant; but it also serves as road map for those who must step in when the primary operations’ crew is unavailable. For the manual to be effective, vital information must be easy to find, quickly and efficiently. The O&M manual is designed to give treatment system personnel and the back-up operator the proper understanding of techniques and references protocols necessary to efficiently operate their facilities. Having an O&M manual which includes well written SOPs, and an emergency response plan will ensure that operations will be able continue in a situation when new or temporary staff must be trained quickly.
Moving forward the contract operator has been retained as the town’s back-up operator. His crew has already begun planning to assist with development of a functional O&M manual to eliminate this situation in the future. The grateful town manager is now keenly aware of the need to document and to have a back-up plan in place.
When developing an O&M manual ask yourself:
- What do I do on a daily and weekly basis to maintain my water or wastewater treatment system?
- Do these activities or pieces of equipment that need maintenance involve SOPs, manufacturer’s specifications, or record keeping logs?
- Do I have the right tools?
- What documents or logs do I need to develop?
“Thank you so much for the help you guys have provided. You have been wonderful to work with. We will certainly be in touch.” – Town Manager of a Little Town, Anywhere, USA