Lessons learned from the boil water advisory in St. Thomas, a full transcipt of Mayor Cliff Barwick’s message

Here is the full transcript of Mayor Cliff Barwick’s press conference Monday, Aug. 23, 2010 at city hall in response to the boil water advisory issued Aug. 19 and lifted the following evening. Barwick opened by explaining why a state of emergency wasn’t declared and instead a low-risk advisory was issued.

A state of emergency activates a controlled group of a number of people, and brings together in the community a number of resources. These resources include fire, police, ambulance, social services, certain other social agencies, other groups and of course there is automatically put in place a phone protocol.

In this particular situation, this is the first time in the history of the City of St. Thomas where we did not have a state of emergency but we had something that affected the city in a city-wide sense.

The state of emergency – at no time did I receive any advice from the administration, from the emergency measures officer, from the health unit or the medical officer of health to declare a state of emergency. I certainly would not to that on my own. I would only act upon that type of advice.

May I comment on the communication protocol. With regards to notification of members of council, it is a communication protocol where we use phones. If you cannot be contacted by a phone, it’s going to be very difficult for us to contact you. There are a number of reasons for that. Cell phones can be put in use when computers aren’t available. That’s something that goes on with the emergency control group.

The only protocol we had in place to notify members of council comes from within the environmental services department. Mr. Dewancker is in charge and when the chairman of the committee was involved, he asked immediately about the members of council and I asked the same question. And the chairman of the committe, Tom Johnston, undertook to phone all the members of council.

We had Ald. Aarts, Ald. Shackelton was in hospital, the only one who couldn’t be reached until 9 o’clock at night was Ald. Sands and she does not have an answering service. It’s very difficult for us to get hold of people on the phone if you do not have an answering service.

May I just go through the time span with you.

Before I say this, I want to tell you each of us, the client municipalities as well as the health unit as well as the City of St. Thomas, manager of the system, is undergoing a review of procedures. We will all come together when the those procedures are finished and recommendations can come forward as a group and Mr. Graves (city clerk Wendell Graves) is arranging that meeting and it may not take place until next week.

The city was first notified on the negative sample at 3:40 p.m. in a parking lot in the City of London. By 4:29, our city’s environmental services department was notified. At 4:30 the health unit was notified.

Now, at that point, our obligations to notify the health unit had ended. From then on, the ball was in the court of the health unit, and we will do everything we possibly can to assist them.

And this is perhaps where some improvements in protocol could be made.

We did not have the order by piece of paper with the MOH’s signature on it until 7 o’clock. When we had that piece of paper, we assembled our group – this was a low-risk level advisory. This is not a state of emergency.

The E.coli count and references to Walkerton were totally out of line. As Laura McLachlin said at the health unit, what we had here was a situation that worked.

As soon as we had that notice, we had to look at the area where the samples had been taken that indicated E.coli, three parts. That was in the northwest quadrant of the city. That was our priority.

Within two hours of us going out on the streets – it took us time to run off thousands of copies of this notice – most of the area on the north side was notified and they were all notified in four hours. Hand-delivered notes.

The city itself, not including the time we took off to sleep from midnight to 7 in the morning, it took us 12 hours to notify everyone in the city. That is nothing short of remarkable.

The health unit had contacted the most vulnerable – the homes for the aged and those in hospital – and that was underdone by 5 o’clock or so.

The city the next day had shut down our splash pads for fear of too much ingestion by the children of what was supposedly contaminated water.

We had all sorts of statements in the press inferring and implying about a Walkerton situation. Absolutely deplorable. They were “I” statements.
“I said this,” and “I told the press this was Walkerton.” They were all “i” statements. They were irresponsible, inflammatory impertinent and irrelevant. They did nothing but induce among the population a fear mongering. The worst form of communication you could give to your residents is that of fear mongering.

I’ve served this community for 25 years in an elected capacity. I may be blunt at times, but I’m telling you this I don’t fear monger people. I tell it as it is. That’s not the tactic I use as a person who taught in this community for 30 years. Who has taught the kids, taught the parents and taught the grandchildren.

I care about the community and I would do nothing to jeopardize the health and safety and I’m certainly not resorting to fear mongering as part of that tactic.

I want to comment on the heroes of this particular event. There are two groups.

The one group are the people in the orange outfits. We have 40,000 people that have to be notified. Parks and Recreation, Public Works and Environmental Services, at a labour cost of approximately $20,000, went out and did their thing. I want to tell you publicly right now thank you for what you’ve done, thank you for going to the doors and thank you for telling people. They didn’t just hand out the notice, they most often took it and explained to the people what had happened. And I have emails on my desk testifying to that.

So, to the Parks and Rec department, to your people John, the orange guys and girls did one heck of a job. Not considering the time span we had from midnight until 8 in the morning, we had the city notified within 12 hours – 40,000 people from door to door.

Then I want to talk about the other informal means of communication. Something nobody thought about. Tim Horton’s – when people went to get their coffee, and they found out there was no coffee, what happened? There’s a boil water advisory.

I went down to my west end office and there’s the group sitting in there – there’s 14 people and they all knew about it, and they were boiling their water. The other heroes.

You don’t know what a privilege it is for me to serve as mayor of this community when I have the public to deal with that I have. The public passed on the information to their neighbours, their friends, their employees to whomever, so word spread very quickly. Were there some people who didn’t know until later on? Yes, there were. But we’re dealing with 40,000 people. We have no television station, we have no radio station, we have depend upon those services in London.

Let me tell you, I want to complement those services from London who did what they could to advise the people of this city.

In summation – this has been a dry run. I’m not going to comment about the lab that sent us the wrong sample. That’s for another time and another day. But, I will say this, I think a review is in order as to where we get our samples.

Thank you very much to everyone involved. The dry run taught us an awful lot.

And, I’m going to make another comment. When I gave the press conference on Friday and many of this room knew this, we had to do what we had to do. And we did it well. But we couldn’t figure how you could have clear samples and then this one sample shows up with three parts E.coli, and yet there is residual chlorine. What’s going on here?

Secretly, and I was one of them who said, this sample is out of line. This is not what this system does. This system is a responsible carrier of clean, potable water. Need I say anymore about that?


BARWICK: It’s going to be more than $20,000. That covers only the cost of those people in environmental services who went out door to door. I don’t know if that includes the parks and rec. people and it certainly doesn’t include our administrative people and it doesn’t include the department heads. The department heads who got on the phone and phoned restaurants and there were four or five of those doing that. These people get paid six-figure salaries and they volunteered to do it. Thank you to all those people concerned. And the individual aldermen who went out and did what they had to do.


BARWICK; I’m sure that’s a question being asked by some restaurants. I will tell you now, the consideration with regard to using that lab is going to be a consideration put forward to council. On the legal end of it, I can’t answer the question because I do not know what is involved. I think reference to our legal people would be necessary.


BARWICK: Here’s the crux of the problem as I see it as mayor of the corporation of the City of St. Thomas. The health unit knew about the problem at 4:30. We have to help the health unit establish a protocol that notifies the people more quickly. Even though it was a phony alert, and even though had it not been, it still was a low-risk situation. Not a state of emergency, it was a boil water advisory. We often will issue boil water advisories to neighbourhoods where we’re putting in new lines or temporary lines. And, it may last a day. This was a situation where you had a boil water advisory that affected the whole city, plus our clients in the municipalities of Southwold and Central Elgin. That had never happened before. So, we will establish those protocols, but I think the crux of the whole thing is we’ve got to help the health unit get this message out more quickly.


BARWICK: The state of emergency powers that I possess by bring in all of the those units, you talk about cost, the cost would have been absolutely tremendous. Now you’re talking about six-figure costs. I think you would have more people to communicate and more communication methods. For instance, it is not unusual in states of emergencies to have police go door to door as well. What I was confronted with was no advice to do that and I was also confronted with a situation that was low risk. It was not a state of emergency.

Thank you very much.

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