The woman with the plan: Carrboro fire chief swiftly addresses unprecedented lack of firefighting water

By Ari Sen 

In her 19-year career as a fire service worker, Susanna Williams had never seen anything like this.

She had been asked to conserve water before—in times of drought or other emergencies. But this was different.

They weren’t being asked to simply cut down or scale back. They were being asked not to use the water at all—even if there was a fire.

But she had a plan.

First, she helped to put the word out through the town website, social media, email Listservs and the Orange County Alert system.

Then she attended to the lack of firefighting water by arranging for tankers from surrounding fire departments to be brought in to fill in for the town’s three 1000-galllon pumper fire engines and she made sure areas without fire hydrants in other parts of Orange County were being serviced.

Volunteers were dispatched to senior living facilities and other areas where the message might not have been reached.

Despite the crisis, everything went according to plan.

“We quickly activated our town emergency operations center and began securing resources and ensuring critical infrastructure remained in place,” Williams, the fire chief and emergency coordinator for the town of Carrboro, said in an email.  “The community has never faced a ‘do not use’ advisory from (the Orange Water and Sewer Authority) that any of our 30 plus year members of the fire department recall.  So from our perspective, this incident was a first for many.”

Alderman Bethany Chaney said she came away impressed with Williams’ handling of the water crisis.

“(Williams) was immediately engaging senior management at the town, the mayor, and we got out communication as quickly as we could,” Chaney said. “I just thought that our team was really, really on top of it.”

Williams implemented the plan in response to OWASA issuing a “Do Not Use” directive to its customers which include residents of both Chapel Hill, Carrboro and students and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill. The directive was a result of a water main break that came after a fluoride overfeed caused OWASA to begin piping in water from Durham, Chatham County and Hillsborough.

The main break spilled up to 1.5 million gallons of water and that left OWASA customers without water for almost 27 hours. The spill caused local businesses to close and the basketball game scheduled between UNC-CH and Notre Dame to move to Greensboro—causing several millions of dollars in lost revenue to the community. The shortage also prevented the Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department from using the water for firefighting purposes. In response to the shortage, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle declared a state of emergency for the town at 2 p.m. on Friday.

“Yeah, it was a big deal,” Alderman Damon Seils said. “Even in severe droughts when we are conserving water we can still use the water we just have to be judicious about it. But we’ve never experienced not being able to use the water at all.”

Seils said he was also impressed with Williams’ response to the shortage.

“I think our emergency operations got up and running very quickly our fire chief took a leading role in that,” Seils said.  “From all that I’ve heard it was very impressive.”

Despite being confident in the way the town managed the crisis, Williams implored residents to have an emergency kit that includes water for three days for each family member and for businesses to have a continuity of operations plan in place.

“We don’t need to plan on being more prepared as a town,” Williams said.  “All functioned as it should have during an emergency event.”

Photo used as Creative Commons. 



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