Montgomery's Alert System Stayed Silent
Water Main Break Went Unreported

By Katherine Shaver and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Montgomery County's emergency e-mail notification system failed to send alerts about Sunday night's major water main break and the risk for unhealthy drinking water to tens of thousands of residents because the two employees who know how to operate the system were out of town, the county's top homeland security official said yesterday.

When those two employees couldn't be reached, a third employee who was supposed to know how to run it said that he had never been trained, said Gordon Aoyagi, the homeland security director. A fourth employee who was found eight hours later knew how to operate it but failed to send out any alerts. Residents and businesses learned of the water problem primarily through the media.

"The system worked," Aoyagi said. "We failed."

(To see a detailed map of the affected area, go to http://www.wsscwater.com)Residents, meanwhile, cleared store shelves of bottled water. One woman said she was using bottled water to bathe her 10-month-old grandson.

Confusion was apparent along the edge of Rockville, where some businesses did not know whether their water came from the WSSC system or the city of Rockville's, which was not affected by the broken main. In the King Farm area, many restaurants and a Safeway grocery store were open for much of yesterday, preparing food and washing dishes and utensils with tap water.

Initially, county health workers had thought the businesses were served by the Rockville system, according to the county health department. Health workers told Safeway that its water came from the Rockville system, according to Safeway and the county. But later yesterday, county health workers determined that the businesses were served by WSSC.

In turn, at least one of the restaurants shut down for dinner. Safeway shut down its produce and food preparation areas, and removed and stored thousands of dollars worth of food it had prepared, pending test results, said Greg TenEyck, a Safeway spokesman.

County buildings, camps and swimming pools reopened yesterday, although drinking fountains at those outside the Capital Beltway remained taped off. County recreation officials delivered about 5,300 bottles of water to senior centers and day camps, where children were also advised to bring additional drinking water from home.

Daniell said WSSC officials have determined that the four -foot pipe that broke about 9 p.m. Sunday in woods off Muncaster Mill Road had corroded internal wires.

That corrosion was probably caused by ground water seeping into the pipe through tiny holes, she said, though WSSC has not determined what caused the holes. The pipe was 28 years old, she said.

The delay in the county's emergency notification system played out Monday morning, when many parents were left scrambling after their children's day camps were cancelled and school buildings that house year-round child care centers closed for the day.

The e-mail system is the county's primary method for contacting residents in emergencies without relying on radio or television.

"That was a problem," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff to county schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "It showed some significant need for improvement in coordinating communications to get the message out."

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) called the human failure of the alert system "unbelievable."

"There's no point in having an emergency alert system if we don't have people around who can deal with an emergency," Floreen said.

Aoyagi said no employees would be disciplined, but he said he would look for training issues.

Ulder J. Tillman, Montgomery's health officer, reminded residents and businesses in affected areas to bring water to a rolling boil for one minute and allow it to cool before drinking or washing dishes by hand.

All ice in ice makers should be thrown out and the ice maker turned off and disinfected with a mild bleach solution, Tillman said.

When the boil-water advisory is lifted, she said, residents should throw out the first two batches of new ice.

Staff Writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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