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Unprecedented flooding in 2006 shut down two of United Water's treatment plants. Today, the provider uses an automatic messaging system to alert customers about such emergencies, as well as hydrant flushings, planned maintenance, and collections. Photo: GeoDecisions

Beginning May 1, all water utilities in Pennsylvania must notify customers of Tier 1 violations within 24 hours. Though it's the first state to mandate direct delivery of public notification for such violations, other states have begun asking utilities to voluntarily implement similar systems.

Sending employees door-to-door is one way to satisfy the requirement, but drains valuable resources from service-restoration efforts. That's why two utilities have deployed an automated system that alerts customers while employees respond.

Both Lehigh County Authority and United Water Pennsylvania chose a Web-based program developed by a local company, GeoDecisions of Harrisburg. In addition to delivering up to 120,000 telephone calls per hour, the program can send e-mail and text messages. Managers can call in a message from any type of phone, or record one, using the program's text-to-speech engine.

Lehigh County Authority, which serves 19,000 water and wastewater customers, hasn't had to deploy the system yet. But in 2006 United Water had just installed the Rapid Response System when heavy and prolonged periods of rain across the Susquehanna Valley created several crises simultaneously.

Flood waters partially submerged the agency's 4-mgd treatment plants in Bloomsburg and Hummelstown (see photo). The main line serving Wyoming County was flushed out of the ground, leaving hundreds without water. Though crews restored service in less than 16 hours, customers were placed under a boil advisory for several days.

During the storm, managers recorded and sent periodic calls informing customers about the status of line repairs and provided information regarding anticipated timelines for service restoration. Alerts were scheduled and delivered within minutes, freeing crews to focus on repairs.

The system differentiates itself from competitors by linking the calls directly to customer accounts, enabling utilities to tailor messages for discrete groups of customers. The Web portal is designed to link with a comma-separated value (.csv) file that's extracted from a customer database during project implementation. Users can update the .csv file at any time. The program provides live reports as messages are delivered and detailed summaries can be downloaded once a campaign is completed.

The cost is an average of 40 to 80 cents per customer annually.

Advanced features include answering machine detection, call scheduling, call repeat, and call redial to ensure that the maximum number of customers are contacted. A Web mapping interface will allow spatial selection of alert lists along with spatial display of call results on a map.

“It's imperative to reach affected customers with specifics as soon as we have all of the facts,” says Bob Manbeck, public affairs manager for United Water Pennsylvania. “This direct-delivery method could also significantly reduce the number of complaints related to cloudy or discolored water, as well as the number of customers who have service turned off due to nonpayment.”

—Jonathan Greiner (jgreiner@geodecisions.com) is a project manager for GeoDecisions.

Web Extra

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Chapter 109 Safe Drinking Water regulations were amended in May 2009. For a link to the text, click here.