Business Continuity Planning for Water Utilities: A Refresher

Spikes in absenteeism. Supply chain disruptions. Economic recession. These are just some of the potential problems COVID-19 spells for water utilities. Does your facility know what to do when key employees can't come in? Do you have processes in place to keep services functioning during a crisis? And are you able to communicate operational changes to your team in real time?

A business continuity plan helps you address these types of questions, allowing your utility to remain operational when facing any incident — whether it's a natural disaster, contamination event, or global pandemic. Here's what your plan should cover and the essential steps to take after creating one.

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Why Water Utilities Need a Business Continuity Plan

This plan pulls together existing hazard mitigation, preparedness, and crisis response plans. This plan can help you uncover gaps in your emergency response protocols, presenting an opportunity to implement processes to recover critical functions after an incident. It also helps you better plan for business interruptions, reduce costly downtime, and ensure customer service isn't interrupted during an emergency.

What Should Your Business Continuity Plan Include?

In its Business Continuity Planning for Water Utilities guidance document, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) provides detailed instructions on what facilities should have in their plans. They advise beginning with an introduction stating the purpose of the plan, its scope, as well as assumptions and key relationships. Next, it should outline a concept of operations, defining roles, responsibilities, and how to use the plan. Your plan should also include these standard sections:

  • Mission-essential functions: Prioritizes mission-critical functions through business impact analysis. This section also establishes recovery time objectives for each function, after which your organization would face significant impacts from its loss.
  • Critical resources: Lists resources like supplies, personnel, and equipment that are critical to performing essential functions, as well as how to ensure their availability.
  • Vital records and data: Identifies which information is needed to maintain mission-essential functions, such as facility plans and supplier information.
  • Alternate facilities: Designates a plan for where and how to relocate in the instance of an emergency, including how to plan for a transition to remote work.
  • Delegation of authority: Creates a system for how to update approval levels during an incident.
  • Succession planning: Establishes procedures for who takes over critical positions.
  • Alert notification procedures: Includes a phone tree to ensure efficient communication.
  • Devolution: Provides a last resort procedure if your utility can't continue operating, typically following requirements dictated by state regulatory bodies.
  • Reconstitution: Outlines the procedure for resuming normal operations.
  • Tests, training, and exercises: Identifies an annual schedule for testing and training of the plan.

In addition, these plans typically include multiple appendices around areas such as plan maintenance, committee members, and the lab continuity of operations plan. The WRF provides a business continuity plan template that your utility can easily download and use.

Empower Your Team to Respond to Emergencies

Regular tests, training, and exercises are crucial to both ensuring your staff is prepared for emergencies and protecting public drinking water supplies. You should also periodically run exercises using real-life scenarios. This not only gives your team a chance to run through the plan before an incident occurs, but it also gives you insight into areas where it can be improved.

These exercises could include tabletop drills where teams explore potential emergency situations, practices around specific functions, or full-scale training experiences incorporating multiple agencies.

Maintaining Your Plan Is Just as Important as Having One

You should also regularly update your plan to ensure it's effective if you need to call on it. The WRF recommends water utilities adopt the Plan-Do-Check-Act approach in maintaining their plan:

  • Plan: Establish policies, goals, and processes related to ensuring continuity of operations.
  • Do: Put your plan into action, ensuring you're doing what you said you would do.
  • Check: Evaluate the performance of your plan against your goals.
  • Act: Take any corrective actions, based on auditing and management review.

It's a lot of work to pull together a plan of this magnitude, but it's something your utility will always need. This plan can help you avoid disruptions, no matter what challenges arise, so you can continue to service your customers and care for your employees in the best way possible.

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Rachel Tracy
Professional Writer

Rachel Tracy is a technology and science copywriter with a background in environmental and water science. She holds a master’s degree in environmental science from Vanderbilt University and has experience working in a variety of laboratory settings, including water testing and biomedical labs. Rachel is a former environmental consultant with expertise in regulatory compliance, global management standards, and quality and safety management. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.