Sandy City’s recent contaminated water troubles have highlighted an important principle of good governance: Thorough, immediate and complete action and communication is essential. Great leadership is grounded in advanced planning, protocol and scenario creation, communication strategy and rapid response. These play out in particularly vivid ways when things go wrong, as they recently did for Sandy residents.
To his credit, Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn has apologized that his city did not initiate its emergency protocols sooner. Unfortunately, that delay may have led some people to become sick. About 150 Sandy residents reported possibly suffering the ill effects of contaminated drinking water. The list includes a 3-month-old baby.
But even with certain protocols in place, the action, execution and communication were incomplete and ineffective.
The modern world has more media choices than ever before, but ensuring messages cut through the chatter and get to every person is increasingly difficult. In the past, a simple alert to traditional TV and radio outlets would likely have done the job.
The realities of the 21st century should not be used as an excuse, but they do illustrate a challenge that isn’t easily solved.
Trouble began Feb. 6 when several Sandy residents reported problems. Apparently, undiluted fluoride was accidentally released into the city’s water supply after a heavy storm. This, in turn, corroded pipes, releasing high levels of lead and copper into the water. Two homes that were tested registered lead levels 26 times higher than what normally would be considered unhealthy, according to the state Division of Drinking Water.
Because the spill affected pipes, each individual home in the affected area may have been impacted differently, and each home would require remedial efforts to clean its water.
But some residents have said they weren’t notified of the problem for more than a week after it was detected. The state has cited Sandy for failing to adequately notify the public.
Many people receive information on social media, but that landscape is becoming increasingly populated by diverse platforms. A reverse 911 system, which sends a recorded message to private telephones alerting people to a problem, is fraught with problems. Cellphone users must physically register with the city to receive such notifications. Many don’t — a challenge, considering landline phones seem to be going the way of vinyl records.
The city tried distributing flyers door to door, but this also was ineffective. Many people were not home, and some dismissed the flyers as junk mail without reading them.
Many city residents expressed anger at a public town hall meeting on Monday. They have a right to be upset. Problems with the water supply are serious. People rely on water for everything from cooking, to hydration and personal hygiene.
Now is the time for Sandy and state officials to set things right. The first order of business for the city is determining how the accidental discharge of fluoride occurred, and to take steps to ensure it does not happen again.
The second should be to examine the city’s emergency protocols and determine how better to communicate immediately and effectively.7 comments on this story
The third must be a full investigation and report as to what happened, why it happened, how warnings were communicated and what a strategy will be for preventing future problems. Transparency, especially in difficulty situations, is part of leadership in action.
Utahns deserve better from government and leaders.
Sandy needs to quickly demonstrate it has corrected the problems associated with this incident and to develop a more effective emergency notification system. Sharing the findings of the investigation in a transparent way with residents will show leadership and build trust. Like water, public trust is not to be treated lightly.