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Fire and water: the importance of water

By Charlie Maclean-Bristol, MBCI FEPS

The news during the past week seems to have been dominated by the possibility of military intervention in Syria. However, an item which has been pushed down the order of news, is the ‘Rim Fire’ in the north-western part of Yosemite national park. Although wild fires seem reasonably common in the USA, this one caught my eye as the ash from the fire threatened to pollute the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides water to 2.6 million people and provides 85 percent of the water to the city of San Francisco.

Having worked at Anglian Water in the UK for seven years, first as Emergency Planning Manager and then as as Head of Security and Business Continuity, I always take a keen interest in any emergency involving water. The contamination of water by ash is an incident that is new to me and I wonder how serious it is? Even with my limited knowledge of clean water purification, I know that water plants are pretty good at taking out any possible contaminants. In fact, due to the massive dilution associated with a large reservoir and the quality of the treatment, unless you dump lorry loads of contaminants into a reservoir it is actually very hard to pollute an entire reservoir.

Where pollutants have entered the water system it is usually at the processing stage. A classic case of this was the leaking of diesel from a generator into the water supply of part of Glasgow in 1997, which lead Scottish Water to issue a ‘do not drink’ notice to 50,000 people. This was not caused by a spill into one of the reservoirs that fed the city but at the actual water treatment plant.

I think in business continuity terms water is one of the ‘Cinderella utilities’ when compared with electricity. Many business continuity strategies have involved the installation of standby generators but not that many organizations have standby or alternative sources of water.

All businesses use water and I think we sometimes forget that if we have no water in our toilets /restrooms, then very quickly the office becomes unusable, not as quickly as when there is no electricity but it doesn’t take long to reach that point. The other very big use of water is in cooling, especially its use in data centre / center cooling. Almost all data centres, whether a cupboard containing a couple of servers or a full corporate data centre with racks upon racks of servers, need water from air-conditioning units to cool them. If the water fails, the servers very quickly overheat and they close down. For most organizations large or small, without their IT they rapidly grind to a halt and cannot continue to function.

So what actions should we as business continuity people be thinking about concerning the loss of water?

1. As part of the BIA process you should have looked at the threat of loss of water and looked at where water plays a critical part in your processes. If you haven’t done this, then this is a good place to start. It is especially worth discussing with those people who run your data centre: what cooling systems do they have in place and what contingencies do they have in place for water loss?

2. I think almost all organizations with office based staff should think through how they deal with loss of water to their toilets/restrooms. Contingency plans can vary from a reciprocal agreement with the office next door, to bringing in portable toilets.

3. If you lose water to your canteen can you simply close it down or perhaps provide alternative catering arrangements?

4. I always suggest that the business continuity manager should sit down with the facilities manager or building manager and be told where the water pipes, electricity cable and network cable come into the building. You can then see whether they are vulnerable to a digger damaging them. Even if you have two pipes or cables into the building, if they are located in the same trench then they give you a single point of failure!

5. If water is critical to your processes you should think through how you mitigate the loss of water. This could be by having two different water supplies coming into the site or having storage on site, which you can use as a buffer until your water supply is restored or you use an emergency water supply company to provide you with tankers of water in the interim period.


Charlie Maclean-Bristol, MBCI FEPS, is director of PlanB Consulting. Read Charlie’s regular business continuity blog at http://www.planbconsulting.co.uk/blog/

•Date: 4th September 2013 • UK/World •Type: Article • Topic: BC general

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