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Last week in Portland, officials conducting routine reservoir testing found something unexpected: E. Coli.  Officials reached out to the community via print, television, and radio news outlets, health networks, and their utility Web site.  Unfortunately, many in the community remained unaware of the contamination until reading about it on the bottom of their TV screens during the following day’s football games.  As it turns out, textbook responses don’t work as well when the textbook in question is out of date.

In the age of Web 2.0, Blackberries and iPhones, utilities need to invest in rapid notification systems. While publicly-owned water systems operate on razor thin margins, they cannot afford not to invest in such systems.

Today’s alert systems can deploy text messages to cell phones and Twitter accounts; they can transmit personalized voice messages to home, work and cell numbers; they can provide critical updates and ongoing progress reports; and they can send out e-mail – all at the same time. Remarkably, the process can reach millions of people in minutes at a cost of pennies per household.  Sound too good to be true?  It isn’t.  But in a conservative industry like water, makers of rapid notification alert systems need to do a better job explaining why their technologies won’t be obsolete tomorrow.  It also wouldn’t hurt if manufacturers mentioned that today’s systems can be used to streamline other utility costs and operations (like fully automating the billing department).

There’s no silver bullet to rapid response, but by adopting multi-faceted approaches that incorporate digital and analog solutions, water utility managers can ensure their communities remain informed on the critical information they need to maintain public health during times of crisis.

While not all created equally, rapid notification systems, when leveraged as part of a relevant, cost-effective, and holistic approach to effective utility management, are capable of protecting public health and saving money.  Welcome to the future.

L. Vance Taylor has worked to advance the mission of homeland security on Capitol Hill and in the private sector. One of only approximately 250 people in the nation with a Master’s degree in Homeland Security, Mr. Taylor combines specialized educational training with real-world experience to leverage successful outcomes for clients and stakeholders. Read More