Water Journal : Water Journal September 2013
september 2013 water 39 Feature article IntroductIon In early 2012 Western Water in Victoria declared a boil water notice for a semi-rural area about an hour west of Melbourne. The notice was not lifted for all customers until more than six weeks later. Western Water’s incident response centred on customer engagement, to ensure the approximately 85 affected customers were fully informed of the situation and given the appropriate support and advice. Some months after the incident, Western Water commissioned detailed qualitative research to assess how customers responded, and if there were any long-term impacts. tHE IncIdEnt Shortly after low-level Faecal Streptococci contamination was identified at a testing point, an incident was declared. Although the likelihood of customers being affected by the contaminated water was low, the possible consequences for customers and Western Water were significant. The potential risk of most concern was customers’ health and safety. The possible impacts on Western Water’s reputation, and the loss of trust in the safety of the drinking water supply for affected customers – and Western Water’s serviced population of 155,000 – were also of great concern. The incident team prioritised customer and community engagement, with the first action to identify affected customers and ensure they were notified. Communications staff produced a letter to customers, explaining that: • Routine testing had shown contamination in their drinking water supply; • Western Water and the Department of Health recommended boiling all water for drinking and food preparation until further notice; • Western Water was working to identify and rectify the source of the contamination; • A drinking water furphy (tanker) had been placed at the local primary school for use by residents; • Residents could buy bottled water and keep receipts for reimbursement by Western Water; • Contact details were provided for further advice. Two staff members door-knocked every affected customer, leaving the letter behind in a prominent place in cases where residents were not at home, with follow-up contact by phone. Each household was also given a 10-litre container of drinking water. This boil water notice was unusual in that Water Systems staff and contractors were unable to identify the source of the contamination quickly. This meant great challenges for communicating with customers and keeping them engaged, as well as maintaining their trust in Western Water as a provider of safe drinking water. Customers received further letters around four to five days apart over the next three weeks. As the incident went on, key messages to customers needed to change, and different groups of customers received different messages. Emphasis was placed on reassuring customers that Western Water was doing all it could to resolve the issue. Importantly, customers were given specific, clear information about what the company was doing, rather than a generic message that actions were under way. When the site of the contamination (although not the cause) was identified after two weeks, most affected customers were able to be isolated from the water source, leaving around 30 customers on the boil water notice. A small number of customers remained on the boil water notice for six weeks before water quality testing showed conclusively that there was no evidence of contamination, and the boil water notice could be lifted. COMMUNITY ATTITUDEs TO A BOIl WATEr INCIDENT After a lengthy boil water incident, Western Water was keen to find out how customers responded, and how the incident affected their attitude to the drinking water supply. Kylie Smith and Peter Donlon tell the tale.
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