On Call

Building an emergency response team requires careful planning and attention to detail.
On Call
Containing the overflow is the first priority in an emergency situation. Anything that can be used to keep the sewage from running into storm drains or green areas is fair game. (Photo courtesy of Jim Aanderud)

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Most municipal wastewater utilities handle sanitary sewer overflows internally and have their own emergency response teams, but these services are being outsourced more and more. As a result, there is an emerging opportunity for contractors that specialize in pipeline inspection and cleaning.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was enacted in an effort to help clean up our waterways. The legislation led to a national focus on reducing the number of SSOs in the 1990s, and the results were quite impressive. Utilities were able to achieve significant reductions by taking aggressive and proactive measures, but even with billions of dollars spent annually to rehabilitate our aging sewer system infrastructure, sanitary sewer overflows are still inevitable.

The fines levied for SSOs can be staggering. In some cases they can be as high as $10 per gallon. A 400-gallon-per-minute spill can cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars per hour. If these spills aren't handled expediently, the fines can easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. So, there is great motivation to limit SSOs and respond to them as quickly as possible.

The contractor

A contractor-based emergency response service is not for the faint of heart. It is a serious business that requires serious attention. A haphazard plan or a lackadaisical approach is a sure path to disaster. Only serious and dedicated companies should even consider entering this market.

Federal and state government pressure ensures that municipal utilities take SSOs very seriously. If a contractor fails to respond to a spill within a given timeframe, the financial impact to the municipality is huge. This cost could even be passed on to the contractor. When sewage is flowing down the street, municipal officials won't be interested in excuses.

Even if a wastewater utility doesn't contract out its emergency response services, it can still be fruitful to be listed as a backup response team. Some agencies like to keep contractors on file in the event an emergency situation develops that is larger than they can handle. This can also be a great opportunity for contractors to get their foot in the door.

If your company does get contracted as a primary emergency response team, there will still be agency personnel involved. Most likely, they will be the ones contacting you and will be on site before your team arrives. They will be the ones directing the action, while your job will be to stop the overflow.

Setting up an emergency response team

The first priority in setting up an emergency response team is to have experienced combination unit operators with extensive sewer cleaning knowledge. When your company is called out to stop a spill, there is no time for on-the-job training. The operators must know sewers and understand the dynamics that cause sewer backups. They must be able to grasp the scope of the situation quickly, develop an immediate plan of action and be capable of executing it effectively in order to stop the overflow.

In addition to the operators, the combination unit and any support vehicles must also be ready at all times. Tools, nozzles and containment equipment should always be on the trucks. Vehicles should be checked regularly to ensure that they are ready to roll.

Operating an emergency response team presents many challenges, but none greater than the need to have personnel on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Crews must be rotated regularly. An ER team must be prepared to respond to an emergency at a moment's notice, and in some cases, they may be required to be on site in under an hour. Guaranteeing a timely response requires a structured communication protocol that ensures employees can be reached and will respond expediently.

There may be cost considerations when having an ER team on standby around the clock. Some companies compensate their employees for their time, while others do not. Either way, team members face some restrictions. Response time is critical to an ER program, so they must stay within a small geographical area. They cannot venture beyond a point where they are unable to respond within the allotted time, and they must refrain from drinking alcohol.

Standby compensation can be a bit tricky if there is no line item for it on the bid package. In this case, the only way to make up for the shortfall is to ensure that the cost is absorbed into the actual response time. Unfortunately, if spills don't occur for long periods of time, the financial burden could become a loss.

On site

The delineation of responsibility in an emergency response should be clearly defined in the contract documents. The contractor must know who is responsible for estimating flow, determining volume, taking photographs and documenting onsite events. Most agencies take on this role themselves as they collect information for their spill reports, but the contractor must have a clear understanding of where his responsibility lies.

Once on site, the crew must be able to work as quickly as possible in order to mitigate the situation. Containing the overflow is the first priority. Anything that can be used to keep the sewage from running into storm drains or green areas is fair game. Sand bags, absorption socks or even dirt berms can be used to hold back the sewage. In severe cases, a backhoe may be needed.

The next step is to break the blockage. Setting up at the right manhole is critical. Most of the time it's the manhole just downstream of the overflow, as it is the closest one to the blockage.

Seasoned operators understand that a single nozzle is not sufficient for clearing blockages. In this case, at least three different nozzles may be needed.

The most effective tool for breaking through the blockage is a penetrating or chisel point nozzle. These nozzles are designed to drive up the line and punch a hole through the blockage. Their torpedo-like shape and forward jets make them an ideal tool in this situation. It may take a number of impacts before the nozzle actually breaks through, but eventually flow will be restored and the overflow will be relieved.

Once the water recedes into the manhole, many crews consider their jobs done. Since there is no longer an active overflow, they assume the problem has been eliminated. But this assumption can be very dangerous and could lead to a secondary overflow. It is imperative that the obstruction be completely removed before moving on. A penetrator nozzle only pokes a hole through the blockage and may provide only temporary relief. The mass that originally caused the backup may still be there and must be removed.

A good combination unit operator will understand the cause of the blockage and its exact location almost immediately. He'll be able to feel the fluctuations in the hose when the blockage is encountered, and will be able to read the water as the dislodged material flows through the manhole.

If the blockage was caused by a root mass, it may be necessary to use a mechanical cutter like a root saw or a chain flail. A spinning nozzle such as a Warthog (StoneAge) or Bulldog (Enz USA) can be very effective if grease is the problem. Either way, a spinning nozzle should be used to thoroughly clean the pipe wall.

Blockages can interrupt the normal flow of solids for a period of time, so it is possible for a buildup of solids to accumulate behind the blockage. This must be cleaned and completely removed before the job is complete. A Grenade Bomb-style nozzle is the perfect tool for moving large quantities of sediment.

Placing a basket in the trough is also a good idea, as it will catch the material and keep it from flowing through the manhole. Dislodged roots or any other solids could easily cause a secondary blockage downstream.

In some cases, the contractor may be required to clean up the surface area as well. Depending on the size of the spill, this may take a considerable effort. If soil was used for containment, it could be considered contaminated and may fall under special disposal requirements.

Due to the environmental impact and financial cost of overflows, it should never be assumed that a blockage has been cleared. As soon as possible, a CCTV camera should be used to inspect the area and verify that the potential for future problems has been completely eliminated.

There are many factors to consider when putting together an emergency response team, but being part of a team that protects our environment by eliminating sanitary sewer overflows can be very gratifying. Contractors who take this business seriously, prepare properly, and perform superbly, will wind up being one of the best resources an agency has.


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