Crisis Expert Teams provide quick expert assistance in the event of emergencies and environmental incidents

New covenant signed for Crisis Expert Team: Environment and Drinking Water

At the beginning of this year KWR’s CEO, Dragan Savić, along with directors of seven other knowledge institutes, signed the new covenant that regulates the participation of their experts on the Crisis Expert Team: Environment and Drinking Water (CET-md). This Crisis Expert Team is organised by the Departmental Crisis Coordination Centre (DCC) of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. The new covenant – valid for three years, with the possibility of extension – sets out how, in the event of water emergencies or environmental incidents with a potential impact on the supply of drinking water, the people on-site can access experts who can help them take the proper measures to solve the problem or limit the damage. The experts’ role varies from providing information to alerting, and everything from small incidents to highly critical situations might be involved.

Covenant signatories

  • National Institute for Public Health and the Environment/Environmental Incident Service (RIVM/MOD),
  • Defense/Expertise Coordination Centre Occupational Health and Safety (Defensie/CEAG),
  • National Information Centre Hazardous Substance Incidents (LIOGS),
  • Wageningen Food Safety Research (WFSR),
  • University Medical Center Utrecht (UMC),
  • Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI),
  • Water Management Centre Netherlands/National Coordination Commission Environmental Pollution (WMCN/LCM),
  • KWR.

Deploying expertise in the event of incidents

A market survey conducted prior to the new covenant’s establishment made clear that KWR is the only party capable of filling the expert role for drinking water within the CET-md. For this reason, no broad search was conducted before establishing the new covenant. KWR after all implements the Joint Research Programme (BTO) for and with the entire drinking water branch, and has in-house expertise on the drinking water provision, including the connections with other parts of the water cycle. KWR also has short communication lines with drinking water utilities and laboratories.

Besides the CET-md, KWR also participates in other networks in which, in the event of incidents, experts from various institutes work together in taking stock of the situation, analysing the risks to public health, water quality and the aquatic environment, and making recommendations.

The Water Telephone

Around 30 KWR experts are closely involved in the work for these national crisis networks and the Water Telephone, the on-call service that KWR has provided the drinking water utilities for over 40 years. The utilities can use the Water Telephone day and night for urgent questions concerning drinking water quality and safety, for instance. Van Leerdam: ‘In recent years the DCC and the participating knowledge institutes have collaborated in further professionalising the structure of their joint effort for the CET-md, partly as a result of the evaluation of the effort during the 2011 fire in Moerdijk. At KWR we have further integrated the activities of the Water Telephone with those of the CET-md. Now, with a single call you access both networks and all the organisations’ expertise, including the laboratory services for example. The initial action is still the responsibility of the process managers, who come from one of the knowledge institutes, DCC or RIVM.’ At KWR, Ton van Leerdam and Roberta Hofman, are each on-call as process manager a few weeks a year. And, in the event of significant incidents that might have an impact primarily on the drinking water supply, then Roberta Hofman or Jan Vreeburg act as the so-called ‘principal contractor’ who coordinates the activities of the various relevant institutes. Hofman: ‘But that has fortunately not yet been necessary.’

Networks that work and keep you sharp

This immediately brings us to a key point about the use of crisis teams: most of the time they are not needed, but if an incident occurs, you want to have a well organised system in which the required expertise is made available quickly. Van Leerdam: ‘It’s great when you don’t need to act that much, but when you do need to act, things work better if you actually know each other. This is why it’s good that we have decided to regularly consult with each other in different structures, organise trainings and carry out annual exercises. To this end, in the CET-md we jointly carry out, in an office environment, ‘table-top’ exercises in which we run through different scenarios. For the National Laboratory Network for Terrorism Incidents there is even an annual practice exercise, including laboratory research. This teaches you how to work together effectively, and it makes it easier, when an occasion arises, to call and ask for assistance. In this way you get a network that works. It also gives you a better idea of what you can do for each other.  This is also of course laid out in the so-called ‘knowledge maps’ (see figure), but it is always helpful if you have already talked to each other previously, even if only in the context of an exercise. Also, I think the biggest pitfall for a crisis network is that you start thinking that nothing is going to happen, and you become complacent. It is precisely by maintaining that interaction that we keep each other sharp and ready.’

Last year, for the Crisis Expert Team: Radiation and Nuclear, KWR carried out model calculations and, together with the drinking water utilities, investigated whether they had adequate crisis plans for nuclear incidents or incidents involving radiation. The process also allowed the contact persons to become better acquainted, and to again sharpen the focus on the issue. RIVM always takes the lead in such incidents, while KWR functions as the link between the crisis team and the drinking water utilities.

Quick switch

KWR is a knowledge institute, and dealing with emergencies and incidents is therefore not everyday work for the KWR experts. Van Leerdam: ‘The Crisis Expert Teams also involve the participation of entities and people who are busy with incidents all day long. This calls for a particular attitude; you need to be able, at a moment’s notice, to drop everything and take action to address what, at that moment, has top priority: the incident. And I must say: we do it pretty well. We have short communication lines, and whoever receives a request for example from CET-md or the Water Telephone, presents it immediately to the inner shell of experts and a group of more specialised experts, who read along and provide information whenever their expert help is needed. As a result, we often come up with an adequate answer within an hour. Even at ten o’clock on Saturday evening.’ Hofman adds: ‘We have an internal network which you can count on without hesitation; you are never on your own. It is also meaningful work: if an incident happens, there are very few things that come to mind that I would give precedence to at that moment. You have to be prepared to simply drop what you are doing, in order to solve the problem together as quickly as possible.’

Updated on risks

Hofman continues: ‘At the same time, it is really enjoyable and interesting work. You come across new problems, from which you learn and which frequently also point to new risks for drinking water. For example, questions regularly arise about the risks of discharged drug waste, or about the risks of burning batteries in scrap fires. Lithium batteries for instance represent a hazard because they can burst into flames when struck hard. Among other things, this can lead to water pollution with lithium – something, as it happens, that we increasingly encounter in our normal work. Working for a Crisis Expert Team is not only important for society at the moment of an incident, but also helps us keep fully updated on the risks for drinking water.’