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Should Authorities Buzz Cellphones for Water Contamination?

Wichita, Kan., authorities have a powerful tool that can alert nearly all water customers within minutes that the water may not be safe to drink, but for the second time in eight months, they chose not to use it.

Closeup of drops of water falling into water.
(TNS) — Local authorities have a powerful tool that can alert nearly all of Wichita's half-million water customers within minutes that the city's water may not be safe to drink.

But on Tuesday, for the second time in eight months, they chose not to use it.

The tool is FEMA's Wireless Emergency Alerts system, and it can send a text message emergency alert to every cell phone in a geographical area within seconds. It is typically used for Amber alerts, flash floods and tornado warnings.

It's free to use, comes in multiple languages and doesn't require much work — a few keystrokes.

Members of the public have expressed an appetite for the alerts on social media.

"We need to get alerts on our phones about this," Annie Bananie commented on the city's Facebook page. "Ridiculous how many people found out through word of mouth hours and even days later."

"This is the kind of thing the (alert system) is perfect for communicating yet they never use it," Christopher Parisho, who lives in Delano, said.

Wichita was under a boil water advisory for 32 hours after a problem with a filtration system was detected Tuesday afternoon. The city's tests found no evidence of bacterial contamination after an error at the water plant injected a "higher than expected dose of solids" into the city's drinking water. Some city water customers in rural Sedgwick County remained under the advisory for three days.

The city of Wichita, which owns and operates the water system, and Sedgwick County, which controls the emergency alerts system, are split on when it should be used to issue an alert to cell phones.

Wichita's mayor wants to use it for boil water advisories, saying "if one person gets sick, that's one person too many."

But Sedgwick County Emergency Management officials balk at the idea, saying the wireless alert system should be reserved for imminent, life-threatening situations.

"The worst we're talking about here is people getting diarrhea or flu-like symptoms, maybe," said Cody Charvat, operations officer for Sedgwick County Emergency Management. "Unless it's a deliberate act of poisoning the water . . . we're almost never talking about a life-threatening situation when it's simply a boil water advisory. And because it's not life-threatening, it doesn't rise to the level of warranting a Wireless Emergency Alert."

Kristiana Sanford, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's District 7, said a boil water advisory "is one of many things" local alerting authorities can — and do — warn citizens about using the Wireless Emergency Alert system. FEMA leaves the decision to the locals.

" FEMA is not involved in the actual alert content; rather, we make the system available for AAs (authorized authorities) to quickly reach the public when an emergency arises," she said in an email. "The AAs know best what their residents/visitors need to know."

In the Wichita area, the county's emergency management department has taken a conservative approach.

"The (Wireless Emergency Alerts) are pretty much reserved for those extreme and severe life threatening situations, especially when there's very little time to react," Julie Stimson, director of Sedgwick County Emergency Management, said.

"We're not taking away the water, we're just telling people to boil it," she said. "There is water, so that's another reason why boil water advisories don't get treated with that same sense of urgency."

Instead of using FEMA's system, the county is working with a private third-party vendor, CivicPlus, to build out its internal emergency communications system, CivicReady, so it can send text message and email notifications to Sedgwick County residents who sign up for the service.

"We are building that platform, it just takes time to build," Stimson said at a Wednesday news conference. "We're still going to be a few months out before that is ready to go live. But that is certainly something that we are focused on, having meetings with our vendor and creating that platform for the public to sign up to receive those emergency notifications that they want to be notified of."

Stimson and Charvat agreed that the Wireless Emergency Alerts are the most effective — and immediate — alert system. And they acknowledged the limitations of a system that requires an opt-in.

"Honestly, if they're signed up for any news alert application or any weather alert application, what we send out is largely going to be repetitive," Charvat said. "And it's probably going to be second or third, because these news stations have people dedicated to pushing those social media posts and pushing those app alerts out.

Ticking clock

Before last fall, Wichita had not been under a boil water advisory in 26 years.

Since then, it has happened twice. And it's a matter of time before it happens again.

The city's only water plant is on the brink of failure and won't be replaced for up to three years. It is the sole source of drinking water for more than 500,000 people in the metropolitan area.

"A series of cascading and catastrophic failures at the plant remains a possibility, and grows more likely the longer it takes for a replacement plant to be constructed," the city disclosed in its latest filing to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.

If the plant fails, the city has less than a day's worth of drinking water on hand, according to the disclosure. There is no backup.

(The city has an emergency operating plan in case of a disaster but has declined to release it for national security reasons.)

Alan King, director of public works and utilities, said the city has budgeted tens of millions of dollars for emergency repairs at the 80-year-old plant. The Northwest Water Treatment Facility may not be completed until 2025.

The new plant has been controversial. Former Mayor Jeff Longwell steered the $500 million contract for the new plant to his friends on the Wichita Water Partners team, despite a selection committee raising significant concerns about their proposal and a unanimous recommendation to negotiate a contract with a different firm.

The City Council declined to rebid the contract, saying it would be "too risky" to delay the project further given the fragile state of the existing plant.

For additional oversight, the city has since hired an owner's representative. It plans to hire an outside consulting firm on Tuesday to "produce an effective testing plan" to make sure the new plant delivers safe drinking water.

Any delays in the project could put the city at added risk for water disruptions.

In the meantime, Wichita's water customers — including Andover, Derby, Rose Hill, Valley Center, Kechi and Sedgwick County rural water districts 1, 2 and 3 — are left to wait for the next water problem.

'What happens next time?'

Stimson, the director of the county's emergency response, said the agency has to be cautious about the number of alerts that get sent out to the public. A boil water advisory does not raise the alarm under the county's emergency plans.

"The cell phones are reserved for those true emergency, take immediate action, your life is in immediate danger type situations," she said. "Which is why even the weather service only uses those for like tornadoes and flash floods. They don't use that for every weather event. It's very urgent, very severe type events."

She said the county can also send out an alert through cable and broadcast.

"It is a careful balance of alerting the public to take action versus over-communicating and interrupting people unnecessarily," Stimson said in an emailed statement. "There will ALWAYS be the need to have multiple ways to receive emergency notifications. No medium is 100% effective 100% of the time."

Parisho, a Delano resident who advocated for the cell phone alerts on Facebook, said in a phone interview that there's almost no chance anyone would be annoyed by receiving a boil water advisory on their phone. He said it's the government's job to let people know when there's a problem.

"I wouldn't want them to do it for a (Kellogg) shutdown because of an accident or something like that," he said. "But a boil water advisory? I think it's a reasonable emergency to want something like that to be done."

City-county rift

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said the city shouldn't rely on the county to get a timely alert out about the city's water system. He said he's looking into how the city of Wichita can become an alerting authority through FEMA, so it can issue cell phone alerts about potential threats to the drinking water supply.

The disagreement has created a rift between the city and county.

During the last boil water advisory in October, Stimson said that city officials left the county out of the loop in responding to the water emergency. This time, the city's King said, the city "did a better job of getting them in the loop."

Whipple said he's frustrated that "the loop" didn't include the water-drinking public.

"We should be using every tool at our disposal to let folks know what steps they should be taking to be safe," Whipple said. "The fact that we're not is not a good look, frankly, and it undermines all of the hard work the city does to get the word out and to notify people through traditional media and social media.

"But we can't really expect people to be constantly monitoring our Facebook pages or following the news 24 hours a day to know whether the water's safe," Whipple said. "Safe drinking water should be a given. And when it's not, or there's potential that it's not, people deserve to know right away. There is no harm in letting as many people as possible know they need to boil their water."

© 2022 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.