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Erie County officials fault communication breakdown for boil-water advisory

It’s not just the water mains that are broken.

So are the lines of communication between the Erie County Water Authority and the Erie County Department of Emergency Services.

That’s the conclusion drawn by many during a hearing Wednesday at the County Legislature, which featured finger-pointing, defensiveness and obliviousness over who should have done what after a July 20 water main break.

At one point after the water main broke, county emergency services officials dispatched a Cheektowaga police officer to the water authority’s headquarters to try to find someone with answers.

“I don’t think anybody in this room can say they had full knowledge of what was going on,” said Emergency Services Commissioner Daniel J. Neaverth Jr.

“It seems to me there’s a communication problem all around,” said Legislator Patrick Burke, one of many legislators on both sides who criticized the communication debacle.

More than 200,000 residents, as well as many business owners, feared water contamination for two days and lived under the inconvenience of a boil-water advisory that temporarily shuttered some businesses.

The Erie County Health Department, after consulting with other county and state officials, issued an advisory to boil tap water before drinking it.

The water authority called that unnecessary.

Many legislators said they could understand the county’s desire to ensure public safety, and they also appreciate how the water authority tried to quickly fix the water main break. But lawmakers didn’t accept the shoddy communication system that left the county, the water authority and the public without the information necessary to make smart decisions.

A 36-inch waterline operated by the Water Authority broke June 20 near Millersport Highway, north of the Youngmann Highway, at about 8:30 p.m. Some people lost all service and many more experienced low water pressure. Water service was restored by about 11:30 p.m.

The water authority reiterated its position that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz jumped the gun in pushing for the advisory for the residents in northern Erie County without consulting them.

An emergency conference call held shortly before 11 p.m. the night of the water main break did not include any official from the authority or even the main Health Department liaison, who was at ECWA headquarters working alongside authority engineers.

“No ECWA scientists or engineers were notified of this call, even though the Emergency Services Department maintains two of our experts’ email, home telephone numbers and cell phone numbers for precisely this purpose,” said Chairman Earl Jann.

Meanwhile, county health and emergency services officials said they made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to reach the water authority for answers. They did not have the phone numbers the water authority said they should have had, and the health department’s main emergency contact with the water authority learned about the problem second-hand.

The authority’s emergency lines and website were down during the water main break because of the overwhelming surge of inquiries.

That’s why the county officials sent the Cheektowaga police officer to the ECWA headquarters.

Emergency services personnel eventually spoke with ECWA Commissioner Jerome Schad. Neaverth said Schad offered to call back with contact names and numbers of authority officials who could better inform the county about what was happening.

When asked about this, Schad told The News that the conversation was brief and that he didn’t recall anyone requesting that he follow up with additional contact information.

“I expected the people who were in charge would take whatever appropriate steps as it rolled out,” Schad said.

Even when the county did communicate with authority staffers, as crews scrambled to fix the broken pipe, the staffers seemed unaware that some homes, businesses, and even hospitals had no water pressure at all.

Two hospitals, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Millard Fillmore Suburban, experienced low water pressure, and St. Joseph’s was unable to get any water pressure to its upper floors, county health officials said. Meanwhile, fire companies worried about how long they would be without sufficient hydrant pressure if fires broke out.

When Neaverth convened a small emergency response team, the team relied on reports from emergency managers throughout the county and information from county health department officials. The response team also heard from the state health department, which regulates hospitals, before deciding to recommend the advisory.

Jann, the ECWA chairman, said that decision caused needless disruption to homes and businesses for days. The industry standard for a boil-water advisory is when water line pressure falls below 20 pounds-per-square inch for four hours. But water line pressure never dropped that low, and certainly not for more than 2½ hours, Jann said.

“Our professionals – experienced scientists and engineers – knew that a boil-water order was not necessary due to their experience maintaining water quality and dealing with thousands of leaks,” Jann told legislators. “Still, a boil-water order was mandated by the county. Our experts were later proven correct.”

Authority officials acknowledged, however, that no water line pressure measurements were taken while the water line was under repair. That, coupled with the fact that county officials were hearing reports of water loss that the ECWA didn’t know about, led the county to take precautionary action, county officials said.

Neaverth said that in recent years the water authority has seemed “reluctant” to participate in the county’s emergency boards, training sessions and drills. He also said a more proactive communication approach by the water authority could have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

Other utility companies have a better emergency protocol, he said.

“When there’s a massive power outage, NYSEG or National Grid contact us if we don’t contact them,” he said. “So there’s a two-way communication.”

Jann responded that the water main break wasn’t big enough to merit such a response.

“By 11 o’clock, we thought this event was over,” he said.

Water flow was being restored around that time.

“We’re not going to call the emergency services unit with every break,” he said.

Both county and water authority officials agree, however, that both sides should do better next time.

“Clearly, the former protocols are inadequate,” Jann said.

He added that significant technology and communication upgrades are planned in coming months.

“We’ll own some of the responsibility, absolutely,” Neaverth said.

All sides will sit down next week to rehash what transpired and what needs to be improved, Neaverth said.

“There needs to be a broad discussion on it, not an us-versus-them,” he said. “Maybe when everybody comes out of their bunker, we’ll move forward on that.”

email: stan@buffnews.com

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