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Business continuity for utilities

We are several weeks into a nation-wide services disruption due to COVID-19. Governments and organizations are working to respond appropriately to the limitations induced by the pandemic. We spoke with Brigitte Roth, principal consultant at Acclaims Environmental, on how utilities are taking precautions to ensure business continuity.

What are some key items to action for utilities?

Roth: With the Province of Ontario announcing the mandated closure of all non-essential workplaces, I understand there may be some uncertainty to what this means to people who depend on their services. I wrote on my blog some precautions utilities should take to ensure continuity of essential services. 

  • Confirm up-to-date contact information of key personnel. This is especially important as administrative and technical staff adjust to work-from-home environments. Similarly, confirm the availability of emergency supplies and services (procurement, fuel, power, spills response contractors, etc.)
  • Utilities may already be experiencing pressure from a reduced workforce due to absenteeism or forced closure of non-essential projects and activities. Daily assessments of what normal operating activities are and what can be suspended may be necessary.
  • Reallocate your staff and prioritize the delivery of services. On March 24, the Chief Drinking Water Inspector announced an order under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act to allow other staff to be redeployed within the water utility to ensure safe and reliable operations. If your utility is experiencing difficulty that may lead to a break in continuity of operations, the Ministry has requested that you inform them through the Spills Action Centre at 1-800-268-6060 or
  • Be sure to update your business continuity plans and have a way to effectively share it internally and with your Community Emergency Management Coordinator. The Ontario Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (OnWARN) was born from the needs around Hurricane Katrina and can serve as your community support.

How can utilities reduce their exposure and risk to reliable operations?

Roth: In assessing the likelihood of potential failures, you take into account the reliability and redundancy of your equipment and control measures (e.g. physical/engineering controls, and response procedures when physical controls are not effective or possible). As your control measures become less reliable and less redundant, the likelihood for potential failures increases.

In light of this, we should be mindful of the increased risks and potential impacts to our operations with reduced access to the staff, materials, equipment, and services required in the provision of safe drinking water and wastewater management. 

Risk-based decisions on which operational activities continue because of their criticality (e.g. disinfection-related) versus what activities can be deferred (e.g. valve exercising) will become necessary.  These decisions (i.e. maintaining what is critical, suspending what is not) should be made as soon as possible.

What are some things to keep in mind for staff protection and welfare?

Roth: As operational staff are still on-site and carrying out fieldwork, some utilities have implemented physical distancing strategies that include staggering shifts and days on/off schedules to help ensure staff health & safety.

Related to the possibility of having to access qualified non-certified and non-licensed people to support operations, prepare now for what will form part of your Operator training program. What records will you keep? How will you ensure competency requirements are met? How will these team members be supervised and directed? How will you communicate effectively?

To strengthen business continuity, Esri is providing Coronavirus Business Continuity Solutions at no cost. Contact your Esri Canada account manager if you have an ArcGIS account. For new users, please request assistance through the Esri Disaster Response Program.

About the Author

Josh Triantafilou is a marketing specialist with Esri Canada. He makes it easy for people to find and evaluate products and services relevant to them. Josh is interested in the power of GIS to make sense of the world and affect meaningful, positive change within it.

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