By John Burton
Last month’s water emergency for much of Monmouth County may have been something of a teaching moment for the water utility and governing bodies about how they keep the public informed.
“There are always lessons to be learned,” said Peter Eschbach, director of communications and external affairs for New Jersey American Water, about his company’s communications response to the collapse of water mains on June 29 near the company’s Middletown treatment facility. The break impacted hundreds of thousands of customers in 22 towns in Monmouth County.
“I’ve had residents who’ve contacted me, who felt there was an inadequate message system,” Monmouth County Freeholder Director John Curley said.
Among the issues officials found they need to work on is encouraging area residents to register on town websites for emergency notification, particularly if they did not have a landline telephone.
County government doesn’t have a direct system of individually notifying residents to keep them abreast of breaking developments in emergency situations, said Curley and Laura Kirkpatrick, a county public information officer.
The notification is left to individual municipalities and, in this case, the water utility company.
Members of the Monmouth County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) kept local OEMs apprised of the situation. The county’s public information office issued a series of press releases; posted them to the county’s website, contacted media, posted on its Facebook page and used its Twitter account to get the word out.
“We are trying to maximize these tools,” Kirkpatrick said.
Municipalities, in general, rely on two methods for direct contact to homes and businesses. There is what is commonly referred to as “reverse 911” and another system through which residents must go to a town’s website and register to receive important notices.
Reverse 911 systems have access only to landline telephone numbers. Residents must register through municipal websites to receive notification through mobile devices via cellphones, texts or emails.
The problem for town officials is to get people to register.
New Jersey American Water has two reverse 911 systems; one relies on a private company, the other uses company records to access phone numbers, Eschbach, said.
“Here’s the glitch,” he said. “We contacted as many as we were able to,” with the company’s system. The problem was “customers are not required to give out phone numbers and many do not.”
In Little Silver, Eschbach acknowledged, a system glitch went even further, as the water utility’s system somehow overlooked all its customers there and did not issue the recorded robo-call to residents.
“I’m not sure exactly what happened with Little Silver,” he said. “As soon as we found out about it, we looked into it and we were able rectify it quickly.”
“I have to admit this was a bit of an education for me, too,” Little Silver Mayor Robert Neff Jr. said.
The incident exposed a need to re-evaluate the town’s emergency notification system, he said. “Really, it was something of a blessing in disguise.”
Neff has sent a letter to everyone in the community asking them to register online at the borough’s website to ensure they will be notified in case of another emergency. Residents can use any telephone number they wish for notification and can also get texts or emails. They can limit notification to bona fide emergencies only or get updates about other non-emergency events, too.
“We want to get a better handle on whether we can help residents clarify what lists they’re on and when they get these emails and text alerts,” Neff said.
As the county’s largest municipality and site of the collapsed mains, Middletown became a focal point for the emergency. Administrator Anthony Mercantante said he felt “it went very well,” with the town’s communications system.
Middletown initially issued emergency notification using reverse 911 and information collected through its website registration. “After that we pretty much relied on our website and email blasts,” to keep people up-to-date, he said.
After such events, “there’s always a spike in registering” for the communication system through the township’s website, he said. “People suddenly realize how useful it is.” Middletown has about 8,000 of its 68,000 residents registered, a number that Mercantante said is a pretty good percentage.
“Obviously one lesson is more people should register,” he said. “You learn about these things and you improve for the next time around.”
Eschbach said the water company also learned about improvements that need to be done to its website and its contact system, including reaching out to customers to secure emergency phone numbers.
Some customers told company representatives that when they received the notification calls, their caller ID came up as an unidentified number and the customers ignored it, thinking it was a telemarketer. “That’s one thing we’re looking at,” Eschbach said.
The company’s website contained the latest information but didn’t highlight it well to draw people’s attention. That is another issue that will be addressed.
The water main collapse impacted roughly 150,000 to 200,000 people in 22 communities, who were advised to boil water before using and to stop using water outdoors.
American Water reached the majority of those customers, Eschbach said. He acknowledged that when reaching out to that many people “there are going to be some slip-ups.”
Curley, however, criticized the company for failing to contact him as head of county government, failing to maintain the mains to prevent the collapse and for its water-use restrictions going much further than needed.
Curley has asked the state’s Board of Public Utility to investigate the incident and the company’s handling of the situation.