Can customers play an important role in helping water utilities protect citizens against intentional contamination events by terrorists or others?

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Definitely. As a consumer of water from your local water utility, you may feel helpless regarding the subject of protecting your water from potential terrorist attacks. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. Why?

Largely because, at the present, there is no single method that water system managers can use to detect every imaginable contaminant condition. There simply are just too many potential problems that could be posed by a sophisticated terrorist attack.

This makes any notice in change, of water quality, and extremely valuable method to preventing terrorist attacks. Customer complaints as to unusual changes in their water and any surveillance and feedback they have on suspicious activities are very important security issues for water system managers.

What should you look for? If you are a customer on a water system and you observe any of the following:

  • illness associated with drinking the water;
  • any sudden change in taste, odor or color;
  • any sudden loss in pressure, supply or rapid increase in pressure, even if it was just temporary; and
  • any suspicious activity around water lines, tanks or fire hydrants—you should contact your water utility manager immediately. Any illness should also be reported to appropriate health officials.

What type of water customer should be the most proactive?

While it's vital for every water consumer to be vigilant and proactive, clearly those users of small water systems have the most to be concerned about. Are small systems safe? In the U.S., water system customers support approximately 54,064 community drinking water systems. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 percent of those systems are small or very small, meaning that they serve fewer than 3,300 customers. “Most of the larger metropolitan systems have now improved their security, but more needs to be done,?says Irwin M. Pikus, Ph.D., J.D, who served on the President's Commission for Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCCIP). “Many smaller systems, believing they would not be targets for terrorists, have still not seriously addressed security matters.

Such reasoning is not well-founded. One key impact of terrorist attacks is the realization that they can be replicated elsewhere at the attacker’s whim. So an attack against a small system could well reverberate nationwide.? Besides acting as a training camp for terrorists who plan to move on to larger systems, small systems may become targets for a number of other reasons. “It is very important for small communities to be prepared for sabotage or terrorism activities,?says Peter S. Bearing, deputy counsel for the Indianapolis Water Company and internationally recognized terrorism expert. “No community is immune. As the major cities harden their targets, a small community may become more interesting to aggressors?

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“Collectively, small drinking water systems can create a formidable force against any threat,?says Mark Bradshaw, CEO of the Marcus Group Company Ltd., a security company in New Mexico. “What they do together can make a measurable difference in the safety of the nation’s drinking water supplies.?Unlike other utilities, drinking water systems are self-contained and serve a defined area. These attributes are even more distinct in small drinking water systems. Danneels, along with Richard Luthy, a Stanford University engineer, emphasized this point on November 15, 2001, congressional testimony. They propose that lawmakers encourage communities to develop small, independent water systems so that potential saboteurs cannot easily contaminate or disrupt water supplies for large numbers of people.

However, Danneels and Luthy recommend that these “new, small systems? be networked, like electric and telephone utilities, so that if a local supply is tainted, safe water can be rerouted from other communities to prevent gaps in service. While this concept sounds like a good idea, it isn’t likely to happen tomorrow. For now, no one knows whether or not small drinking water systems will become the nation’s next drinking water infrastructure standard. What we do know is that drinking water systems need to increase security measures and then hope that the precautions they take are enough. To say the least, “being prepared for anything? is an intimidating order. But “if you think that a higher-level threat is credible, you must take steps to prevent (a tragedy) from happening,? says Danneels.

Just how important can a local water consumer be to their local water utility? Extremely vital, given that the first step in a water utility's defense plan is to gather intelligence. Gathering “intelligence" is the best way to begin a security program. “All of the major water organizations are rolling out information about security,?says Beering. “Each system should review these materials and determine which is most appropriate for its particular needs. Systems can take protective actions, and stop or limit things from getting worse.?In addition, system managers can take advantage of the resources available in their communities. “Develop your own intelligence network,?says Bradshaw.

“Local people can report anything that is out of the ordinary. If it’s a really small town, the residents will know if something strange is going on. They can tell you if someone has been asking questions about the drinking water system. Encourage people not to be bashful. Some people are reluctant to report things because they think it seems silly. Do they need to be open to the fact that (their systems) could be targets? Once a system develops an intelligence network, it can then train all the system’s employees to handle situations that are out of the ordinary. “Office staff should be trained in how to handle bomb and contamination threats,?Beering says. “They should be trained in how to carefully examine unusual packages and, if appropriate, be prepared to call the police or FBI.?Water systems also may use an insert in water bills or an ad in the local newspaper to ask the community to immediately report any suspicious behavior or events out of the ordinary to local law enforcement and the FBI.

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