First and foremost, I hope this message finds everyone healthy and spending quality time with loved ones during the uncertain period ahead. In times like this, it is also important to remember those less fortunate to help them out when we can, and when it is safe to do so.
These are some of the most challenging times we have faced collectively as a country, province, and municipality. There is uncertainty over day-to-day life, growing concern for our elderly and medically-vulnerable citizens, and anxiety over our well-being and the economy consume our thoughts. Whether you are a small business owner, a banker, or a restaurateur, there are varying perspectives of what this is doing to everyday life. It is an extremely fluid environment that we are all living and adapting to daily.
Water and wastewater professionals are no different.
The world of water and wastewater is unique in the sense that we are not deemed an essential service but yet we are absolutely necessary to ensure the continued public health of our communities. We are not able to just pack up our belongings and go home; we are not able to leave a water main break or a blocked sewer for the next week; we are not able to ignore a low-chlorine residual alarm or a high-level alarm at a sewage pumping station; we are not able to just stop sampling when our normal testing locations have been closed because of this pandemic.
And we don’t want to go home. Water and wastewater professionals are extremely dedicated individuals, committed to ensuring the provision of safe drinking water and the environmentally-sound conveyance of wastewater. There has been no threat to either during this pandemic, and for that we should be extremely grateful, but this is also different for those of us who do this work day-to-day. The threat is not a low-chlorine residual or a looming summer storm, but a threat we have little to no control over. And the question lingers: What if our workforce is impacted?
I know in every municipality I have had the pleasure of working with has an emergency plan with a section on how to deal with a pandemic. I, too, have been guilty of skimming over this section and dismissing it as unlikely to ever occur. I am certain that when we get through all of this ¬¬—and we will —updating these plans will be a priority.
The next time something similar occurs — and it will — we will be much more prepared. This is not a criticism of anyone as we are witnessing this from the top down, from federal to local government and in all countries. We are all learning through this, making changes day by day, and for that, we will be that much stronger, the next time something like this takes us by storm.
Although human interaction is rare in the world of water and wastewater, there are risk-mitigation measures that can be followed. Number one is to always take direction from your local public health authorities. For external stakeholders, this means limiting all non-essential interactions with consumers and contractors. Pump station maintenance and meter appointments can wait. Hold all meetings through conference calls or similar means.
Internally, segregate as much as we can corporately but also within departments, through time or space, or both. This may mean separate shifts, or where that is not possible, separate working locations. For example, split your water and wastewater departments, and find alternative locations as temporary working points. The goal being that the groupings do not interact with each other unless under emergency situations, thus mitigating the risk that an entire water or wastewater group will be depleted.
Where interaction is unavoidable, social distancing is the new norm. We are now screening our neighbours and friends before we get too close. And let us not also forget, that through all of this, there are differing levels of anxiety and fear and it is each individual’s right to feel how they want to feel. Be sure to check in on each other from time to time.
I hope that as spring turns to summer, we will leave all of this behind us —but not without lessons learned, and prepared action plans for next time. I praise the healthcare workers, and front-line staff in all sectors. I thank all levels of government and our local leaders for their actions and support. I commend those that are helping the less fortunate. And I wish everyone the best during this difficult and challenging time.
In the immortal words of Mr. Rogers, “All of us, at some time or other, need help …That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbours – in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”
Mike Mortimer, President OMWA