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Best Practice Protocols for Response and Recover Operations in Contaminated Water Systems

National Institute for Hometown Security Kentucky Critical Infrastructure Protection Program

The Center for Infrastructure Research of the University of Louisville (CIR) joined researchers from three other universities to form a consortium to address the needs of a water system as it recovers from a water contamination event. The research consortium was led by the Center for Water Resource Studies at Western Kentucky University (WKU) and also included the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Kentucky (UK) and the Water Resources Research Center and the Community Policy Analysis Center at the University of Missouri (UM). The objective of this project was to develop an analysis and decision-support tool (computer software) that would provide guidance to water professionals in the event they must decontaminate their water systems after the introduction of a chemical or biological agent. The project was intended to assist local, state and regional water utility owners and operators as they face critical decisions related to flushing, cleaning and restoring their systems. It would also assist the utility as it seeks to balance its priorities with the particular concerns of government, environmental and community groups.


The result of this research would be a rules-based software system to provide expert decision-making support for users with limited knowledge and/or data available regarding the system hydraulics and optimum decontamination approaches. It also would include linkages to the Decontamination Network Model (in cooperation with industry partner KYPipe, LLC).


To support the development of the decision-support tool, the Center for Infrastructure Research at the University of Louisville (CIR) conducted research to identify the key considerations and the decision-making process that enables a water utility to recover effectively while limiting the impact on the community. This information provides the framework needed to develop a rules-based software tool to assist water utilities with system recovery in response to an actual contamination event.


To understand the complexities of decontaminating a water system with respect to technical knowledge and stakeholder concerns, the CIR developed, hosted, and facilitated two workshops that were attended by water industry representatives and other professionals whose areas of responsibility would be impacted in the event of a contamination event. The primary purpose of these workshops was to:

  • Document key issues in the decision-making process
  • Record the particular concerns of utilities and non-utility agencies and groups as their priorities intersect
  • Identify gaps in current understanding

Key challenges

Unlike most conventional research that seeks to answer questions, this phase of the research was intended to uncover the questions most likely to be asked during a decontamination process. At this stage, the specific answers to the most appropriate decontamination process were essentially irrelevant; these issues and concerns are being addressed by the team from the University of Missouri.  However, participants accustomed to emergency-response exercises would naturally gravitate toward solving the problems presented, rather than providing researchers with the questions they would ask at key decision points. Participants most likely would never have consciously considered the key decision points of a decontamination process.


An additional challenge to the research task was that complex decision-making processes with variables unique to each situation are not predictable or linear. The eventual software decision-making tool would need to accommodate this reality. If researchers guided participants down a single, linear path of discussion, the results would not be representative of the many considerations a water professional would actually face during a decontamination event.


Focusing objective

 To counter the inherently imprecise goal of recording a hypothetical decision process, the researchers defined the primary objective of the workshop as exploring a single question: After a contamination event, what key considerations enable a water utility to recover effectively while limiting the impact on the community?


Recording results with mind mapping

 Discussions at any workshop event are inherently somewhat random and chaotic.  However, this is generally a beneficial element, as it enables participants the opportunity to explore topics and then return to central themes.  The challenge for workshop organizers then is to first, ensure that the workshop stays reasonably on topic and second, to capture the discussion for subsequent analysis.

  Because the workshop discussions were anticipated to be non-linear, the research team engaged a professional mind mapper to assist the workshop facilitator. The mind mapper’s use of compelling graphics would also increase participant engagement and enable the group to record thoughts quickly. Mind mapping is a powerful tool that may be used to enhance discussions, assist with managing thoughts and making connections while still adapting to linear tasks such as note-taking, planning and organizing (Stephens & Hermus, 2007). Figure 1, created by the workshop’s professional mind mapper, illustrates the key steps in creating a mind map.



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