No one really knows how much advisories cost or how effective they are, but a water utility or health department can’t not issue one when drinking water doesn’t meet state and federal regulations. The problem is that the two arms of government don’t always collaborate well when this basic public service is threatened.

The Jan. 9, 2014, chemical spill into the Elk River in Kanawha County, W.Va., shows why a free tool developed by industry organizations and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should be part of every utility’s repertoire. While the Drinking Water Advisory Communications Toolbox doesn’t address every single potential contingency, managers can use the 166-page document to develop a communications plan or manage a crisis on the fly (continue in this article for more details).

After advising the state Department of Health and Human Services that 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) leaking from a privately owned aboveground tank had infiltrated its system, West Virginia American Water issued a Do Not Use advisory. More than 300,000 people, about 16% of the state’s population, didn’t have useable tap water for four to nine days.

However, concerns about long-term impacts lingered long after the advisory was lifted. Questions and criticisms of the utility, public health officials, elected officials, and regulatory agencies also remain.

“I don’t believe I’ll ever trust the water again,” said one Charleston resident who completed a post-event survey. Like many, she was not drinking or cooking with the water for months after officials declared it safe.

In a post-crisis review released by the governor’s office in January 2015, communications failures were cited by state agencies, county and local emergency management offices, volunteer organizations, the West Virginia National Guard, and public. While using the toolbox wouldn’t have alleviated them all, it would have gone a long way toward maintaining the public’s confidence.

Next page: Health departments: the missing link