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Anatomy of a Boil Order

It’s rare, but it happens to every system. A pipe fails. A spill occurs. A well breaks down. Something occurs that leads to potential water contamination and a need for a boil order. How long do you have to put a particular notice out? Some require as little as 24 hours, others as long as 30 days. What information is needed in each order to comply with EPA regulations? What is the best way to distribute your boil order?
In this edition of eBulletin, we’ll outline what you need to include in your notifications and when they need to go to customers. We’ll also provide links to some examples online and a checklist to help you the next time a boil order is needed for your community.

Public notifications 101
The basics of public notifications are, well, pretty basic. The confusing part comes with the “tier” levels assigned to public notifications and the time allowed for information to be distributed to customers.
Public notifications are divided into three tiers. Each tier depends on the severity of the violation. It’s important to know where the notification falls, because the tier placement determines how long you have to get the notification out to customers.

  • Tier 1 represents any violation that could lead to an immediate impact on customers’ health. Spilled chemicals in the water supply, a broken pipe leading to iron contamination, detection of e coli or other bacteria in the water  ?  these are some examples of possible Tier 1 contaminations. Contaminations classified as Tier 1 require the most immediate notification of the public. The EPA requires notification to take place within 24 hours.
  • Tier 2 represents contamination that doesn’t pose an immediate risk to human health but still exceeds EPA standards. For example, if a system is upgrading its filters, causing water to carry more benign contaminants than usual, or if standard water quality tests reveal higher-than usual concentrations of a non-hazardous chemical, the system must inform the public. Tier 2 notifications must be made within 30 days.
  • Tier 3 notifications are for instances that don’t pose a direct threat to human health. For example, if a water quality test isn’t done on time or is skipped, or if other violations occur. In this case, the water system has up to 1 year to notify the public. Such notifications can be saved and distributed as part of the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). Water systems are required to send CCRs out to customers once a year.

The notifications we’re talking about fall under Tier 1. They involve situations that usually are unexpected and potentially dangerous to customers. Some may just pose a bigger threat to certain segments of the population, like infants or the elderly. Others can be dangerous for everyone, such as e coli contamination. Often in such cases, a boil order is needed to reduce the health risks.
The EPA requires the following information in all public notices:

  • A description of the violation that occurred, including the potential health effects
  • The population at risk and if alternate water supplies need to be used, such as bottled or boiled water
  • What the water system is doing to correct the problem
  • Actions consumers can take
  • When the violation occurred and when the system expects it to be resolved
  • How to contact the water system for more information
  • Language encouraging broader distribution of the notice

It’s important to be as clear and thorough as possible on these notices. It’s also important to write such notices in general terms instead of “water speak.” People will be concerned enough hearing such news, but if your notice is unclear or full of jargon, it may cause even more concern, which means more phone calls and visits to your water system’s offices. The trick is to find a happy medium between the elements required by the EPA and the terms that all your customers will understand.
It’s also important to be as thorough as possible in explaining exactly what the problem is with the water and when and how it will be fixed. Is it OK to use the water for drinking? What about bathing, swimming or doing laundry? Should I turn off my ice maker until the problem is fixed? These will be common questions that can be answered in the notification and may help calm concerns of your customers.
If you have a web site, you might also consider putting a boil order FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on your web site in case a boil order ever occurs. That way, your customers can get such answers anytime.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has an example of a boil order FAQ on their web site. A link is provided below. The EPA provides an example of a boil order as well as a PDF of the final regulations for public notifications, such as when Tier 1 notifications must be issued. A link to both is provided below.

Additional Resources
EPA – Public Notification Rule
EPA example of public notification
EPA Final Requirements for Public Notification

Spreading the word
Once the public notification is ready, it’s time to spread the word. In the case of health-threatening contamination, you only have 24 hours to get the word out, so it’s important to use as many resources as possible, especially if much of your water system includes rural areas.
Hand delivery may be the most time consuming, but it also can be the most effective and likely should be your first method used. Try recruiting volunteers from the community if you lack workers to distribute the notices to everyone.
The easiest way to get notices out may be through your local media outlets  ?  newspaper, television and radio. Newspapers may or may not be the best solution. Most small towns lack newspapers, and those that have them often have only weekly editions. In such cases, you’ll need to use other methods as well.
The EPA provides additional tips to small water systems on how best to get the word out about boil orders and other notifications.

  • Post boil orders at local grocery stores, banks, public transportation locations in addition to hand delivering notices and notification on local or regional television and radio stations.
  • Have the notices broadcast on the local or regional TV or radio station. Make sure they clearly identify the area affected, so as not to concern those outside of the affected area.
  • Hold community meetings to get the word out and discuss the situation.

To help you out, we’ve created a boil order checklist. The form can be filled out and distributed or posted for water system and city employees to make distributing a boil order easier. The checklist shows the information needed in every boil order. It also provides blanks for local media outlets as well as other places where orders can be posted, such as the local grocery or bank. A link to the checklist is provided below.

Sounding the all-clear
Once the danger has passed and the contamination is brought under control, you’ll need to send out another notification to let customers know it’s all clear.
Use the same methods as before to ensure proper coverage. You don’t want your customers to think they have to boil their tap water endlessly, so make sure you reach as many people as possible to call off the boil order.
Also, be sure to let customers know how and when to flush their systems. Your customers may assume that once the boil order is lifted, they can just turn on their water and everything that comes through will be OK. Explain in as much detail as possible whether their pipes should be flushed and how best to do it. Again, the Massachusetts DEQ provides an example of system flushing instructions. A link is available below.
Boil orders may not be a common occurrence, but they are an evitable part of running a water system, and they’re something that can cause great concern for customers. The more clear and thorough your boil order, the easier it will be on your system, and the more peace of mind you will bring to your customers.