Kathy Rodgers, NH State Lead and Sarah Buck, Deputy Director, Community Resources
When you think of your typical water operator training for seasoned or prospective operators, you likely would envision a room set up classroom style at a utility, community space or hotel, filled with men and women in work boots, all on call, coffee in hand, trying to sit as close to the back of the room as possible, there to get the required continuing education hours needed to maintain their operation license. The word potluck would not even come to mind, but if done right, that promise of shared food, can bring together seasoned operators to assist a community concerned about their distribution system and water quality. This concept was successfully piloted at the Pepperidge Woods water system in Barrington, NH in November 2017, entitled: Distribution System & Community Engagement Workshop.
An animated exchange of information was had by all participants.
Small community public water systems are often run by volunteer operation committees within homeowners’ associations, Co-ops, small Village Districts, etc. Operation committees are a great way to keep costs down and retain institutional knowledge. However, when water quality diminishes, the community may need to seek outside resources to help identify and tackle their issues. That was the impetus for this unique and successful potluck training. Experienced operators would have an opportunity to earn continuing education units while utilizing their expertise to assist a community that, in this case, was experiencing low pressure and brown water.
This idea of an educational potluck with operators, community & board members, and TA providers may not work everywhere, but, in the places that it might, there are a few best practices to keep in mind to ensure a successful experience. First of all, you need a community sparkplug that will draw community residents to the event. That sparkplug is someone who understands the needs of the community and is willing to partner with you to accomplish a specific goal.
In this case, Jane Astley, a member of the finance committee for Pepperidge Woods, worked with the board, the operation committee, neighboring system leaders, and residents to bring in RCAP to lead a training to educate them on their water quality and effective distribution maintenance methods. It was Jane’s idea to host a potluck. Jane understood the importance of an evening shared over food. Both community members and operators took ownership of the workshop by contributing home cooked food–good food, too. RCAP’s staff learned that NH water operators really know how to cook and can make a mean chowdah!
Bear in mind, if the workshop is offered to address a problem, then there will naturally be grievances that residents will want to express. To keep the workshop productive, create a very structured agenda and follow it closely. Revisit the agenda after each section and abide the times to keep things moving along. Assure the group that you will address their individual concerns and leave ample time for open discussion during the “practical” portion of the workshop. Start out with the basic training to enable a baseline of understanding for the general audience.
Research the community prior to the workshop. It is important to have a good grasp on the community needs to tailor the content. For the NH potluck, the RCAP trainer utilized the Area 1 RCAP/AWWA Distribution training materials. The primary audience was Pepperidge Woods’ operational committee and board members, which had limited to no hands-on operational experience. Knowing the distribution system components, water quality issues, and applied treatment enabled the slide deck and examples to be geared towards the host community, Pepperidge Woods. Water quality topics such as hydrants and nitrification were brushed to the side as it didn’t pertain to them—only the topics most relevant to this system were covered during the workshop.
Another good practice is to establish a group agreement on productive conversation or a set of “ground rules” to avoid conflict and promote a more synergistic workshop. The recommendations provided in the agreement can include:
- If you disagree, consider asking a question rather than arguing to prove your point.
- It’s okay to disagree, but don’t personalize it. Stick to the issue, not the person who is disagreeing with you.
- Speak up if the process doesn’t seem fair.
- Speak for yourself, not for others and not for an entire group (use “I” statements).
- Personal stories stay in the group unless we all agree we can share them outside of the group.
- We all share responsibility for making the group productive.
- Be respectful and use respectful language.
- Respect the facilitator’s role.
Allow the community to break into small groups with the seasoned operators in attendance to help identify issues that they have encountered. Bring the group back together to report out and post the identified problems. In this case, brown water and low pressure were the predominant concerns. Then break back into small groups to discuss what could be causing the problem. Again, bring the group back together to outline potential root causes.
Community members listen and share ideas.
During the workshop, the experienced operators were eager to share several potential reasons that could contribute to the brown water and low-pressure issues. A lot of these reasons had not been previously discussed. After further trainer led discussion, the group was able to agree on the most probable root causes and discussed how to address those concerns moving forward.
The community was delighted to have new perspectives and ideas on how to work through their existing and any future issues. The operators were more than happy to help and the whole group was so entrenched in the process that nobody was in a hurry to leave. Conversations and expressions of appreciation were still going on at least 15 minutes after the workshop’s close. Ideally, you want to make sure that all attendees feel welcomed, are engaged, and are able to get something valuable out of the experience. The NH workshop evaluations confirmed that both the operators and community enjoyed this fresh style of training and found great value in the experience. The NH RCAP trainer is now working to develop a workshop using the same operator and community engagement potluck approach to introduce digital mapping to another small system.