Water Journal : Water Journal September 2013
water september 2013 40 Feature article AssEssIng WEstErn WAtEr’s rEsponsE In order to gain an understanding of how this lengthy boil water notice had affected itscustomers, Western Water commissioned a research project to interview customers involved and obtain their feedback. It was hoped the research would show whether communications and engagement had been effective, what Western Water could learn from the experience, and the ways in which the company could improve if such an incident occurred in the future. The objectives of the project, conducted by Business Research Associates, were to examine the effectiveness of communications, the extent to which customers modified their behaviour, and the longer-term effects such as people’s attitude to, and use of, tap water. The project focused on: • Customer perceptions of the level and mode of communication from Western Water during the incident; • Customers’ attention to, understanding of and response to the communications; • Behavioural changes made by customers during and after the alert; • The extent to which customers took advantage of Western Water support; • Customers’ expectations on communication, advice and support for such an alert, and satisfaction with the way Western Water handled the incident response; • Whether the event resulted in any longer-term changes to customers’ behaviours or their attitudes to water quality. An initial literature review found there was very little publicly available research on the effects of boil water notices on customer behaviour. However, a study carried out in the UK on a boil water notice declared in 1998 found nearly two-thirds of households took some form of risk as defined by the boil water notice, including a number who had consumed unboiled water between the time the contamination was identified and the time they received the notice. The study conducted for Western Water used in-depth interviews, carried out with 15 customers, to gain a broad picture of customers’ responses and attitudes. It was felt that this was the most valuable information, as the relatively small number of people involved meant it was not possible to get useful quantitative data. The research showed that the majority of customers were satisfied with how Western Water managed the situation, and found the boil water notice “inconvenient but manageable”. However, it identified several ways in which Western Water could improve its response if such an incident were to occur again. The majority of customers received information regarding the boil water notice quickly, and acted promptly to change their behaviour. However, some customers felt gaps between communications were too long. In contrast, some customers felt a bit bombarded with information, with Western Water staff visiting homes greeted with a “You again!” response. No customers interviewed by researchers ignored the message that their water needed to be boiled; indeed, mention of “faecal contamination” in the original letter led to people taking the advice very seriously. The core message perceived by customers from Western Water’s communications channels was “boil or use alternative sources of water where the water was going to be ingested directly through food or drink”. While the risk of drinking the water or using it for food preparation was perceived as high, the risk of using the water unboiled for other activities was sometimes seen as acceptable or unavoidable. The extent to which people changed their behaviour varied; for example, some boiled water for drinking, but did not boil water used for teeth brushing. Brushing teeth and washing vegetables were the two activities where behaviour was likely to be inconsistent. These variations in behaviour change were due to: • Some changes being perceived as too inconvenient – “Kept using unboiled tap water for brushing teeth, preparing food, dishwashing, pets”; • Not absorbing the message for a particular use, or simply forgetting to boil – “Hard to remember not to wash vegetables under the tap”; • People’s perception of risk was different for different water uses – “Still used tap water for brushing my teeth – don’t see much risk in that”. • There was also some uncertainty around specific behaviours, for example, “should water just be brought to the boil or kept boiling for a continuous period, say 5–10 minutes?” Although most customers viewed the boil water notice as merely inconvenient, a few found the experience quite stressful. These customers were generally in one of two categories: households including members with extra risk factors, such as open sores or impaired immune systems; or customers who did not feel they were promptly notified. In the second case, it is possible people did not open letters left for them, believing they were junk mail. perceived risk High Medium Low Drinking a glass of water 14 8 4 Having a shower or bath 2 2 1 Brushing teeth/gargling 11 1 1 Preparing food (eg, washing vegetables) 12 Making hot drinks (eg, tea or coffee) 14 Making cold drinks (eg, cordial) 10 Making ice 6 Making baby formula 1 Washing or rinsing dishes 9 3 2 Water for pets 3 3 4 Water for livestock 2 1 Watering vegetable garden 3 4 Using a water filter 4 Attitudes to risk for different household activities identified by customers during interviews.
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