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D.C. Politics

D.C. officials defend not issuing landline, cell alerts to warn of water problems

July 16, 2018 at 6:18 PM

Pipes at a D.C. Water pumping station. A problem Thursday evening at a pumping station caused low pressure in the system, leading officials to issue a boil-water advisory for parts of Northeast and Northwest Washington. (D.C. Water/)

The District’s top emergency management official on Monday defended the city’s efforts to warn residents of possible water contamination affecting nearly 100,000 people and said his agency did a “great job.”

But local lawmakers want to know why city officials did not use two powerful tools at their disposal to directly reach the public last week, leaving many unaware of potential danger in the drinking supply as they brushed their teeth and drank water Friday morning.

Officials chose not to issue a wireless alert to cellphones or “reverse 911” calls to landlines, as recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, they sent a boil-water advisory shortly after 4 a.m. to the small fraction of the city’s population who voluntarily signed up for D.C. emergency alerts, and publicized the problem on social media and with news coverage.

Related: [Communication problems abound during D.C. water scare]

Christopher Rodriguez, the director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), said his agency did its part to alert the public.

“I would describe it as doing a great job,” said Rodriguez. “We did it as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Officials at D.C. Water, the independent utility, have been far more circumspect, promising an internal review of how their agency communicated its boil-water order.

But the city’s homeland security agency, formed after the 9/11 attacks to coordinate responses and communications regarding emergencies in the nation’s capital, isn’t planning something similar.

“My focus is going to be on increasing the Alert D.C. use because there shouldn’t be people who say they didn’t get these alerts,” said Rodriguez.

Alert D.C. is an opt-in service that allows people to receive emails and text messages about a wide range of issues including road closures, power outages and city government closings. In a city of 700,000 residents, just 104,000 have signed up for the service — and that includes some who live in Maryland and Virginia. Nearly 9,000 alerts were issued last year.

Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who lead committees overseeing the city’s environmental and public safety agencies, want to meet with city officials to review how the incident was handled.

“No one got hurt in this one, apparently, and that’s a blessing because it’s sort of a practice run and revealed some gaps and issues,” Cheh said in an interview. “But there could be a next time, and I don’t want to be in the same situation that caused enormous anxiety among people: You get a notice after you already drank the water.”

Cheh was one of many residents who drank the tap water before learning there was possible contamination.

Related: [Notice of boil water alert came too late, many D.C. residents say]

Among the questions: Why didn’t the city use the reverse 911 system to reach every landline in a given area, as the EPA had recommended? Instead, D.C. Water robo-called customers, a system that took as many as eight hours to deliver messages. Those robo-calls reach people whose names are on the water billing accounts.

Rodriguez said the city’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC), which runs the 911 system, is responsible for the reverse 911 system. Wanda Gattison, a spokeswoman for that agency, did not respond to a list of questions.

John Lisle, a spokesman for D.C. Water, said his agency had asked about using the reverse 911 system in situations like this nearly two years ago.

“Our emergency management team recalled the answer was no, so Friday morning we instead focused on using our own robocall system to call customers in the impacted area,” Lisle said in an email. “Moving forward we plan to work with HSEMA and OUC to see if there are additional tools we can utilize, including the wireless alerts.”

The District, like other local governments, has access to the federal government’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system in cases of “imminent threat or danger.”

That’s the same system used for Amber Alerts and for severe-weather warnings issued by the National Weather Service, reaching all cellphones in a specified area with loud notifications.

Rodriguez cited a terrorist attack or an active shooter as an example of an imminent threat — but not a precautionary, boil-water advisory.

“We don’t want to desensitize people to the urgency of that particular alert. If you over-utilize a capability like that, the public begins to tune out,” said Rodriguez. “I want to make sure, as a custodian of that capability, we use it only in the most extreme circumstances.”

Allen, who chairs the D.C. Council’s public safety committee, thinks wireless alerts are warranted when the safety of the water supply is in question.

“If we are telling people don’t drink the water, at least in my mind, that is equal if not more important than telling people to take shelter because of severe weather,” Allen said in an interview. “If the feeling was an urgent alert needed to go out to tell people not to drink the water and boil it first, I think it rises to that level.”

Related: [For test, emergency managers target 5.2 million cells in Washington-area]

Rodriguez said he would consult with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) before issuing a wireless alert but did not ask her about the boil-water advisory because it didn’t rise to the level of an imminent threat.

Aides to Bowser declined to answer questions about whether city agencies could have done a better job of communicating the public health threat. Instead, they focused on D.C. Water.

“DC Water should do a top to bottom review to assess their management of this particular incident,” her office said in a statement. “We expect DC Water to improve their communications and operations during future incidents.”

Fenit Nirappil covers D.C. government and politics. Before he joined The Washington Post in 2015, he covered the California statehouse for the Associated Press and suburban government outside Portland, Ore., for the Oregonian.

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