Lessons from the DDO boil water advisory: Where do we go from here?
Thursday, August 19th 2021
by Anastasia Assimakopoulos
For over a week, residents from the eastern half of Dollard-des-Ormeaux have been under boil water advisory. There has been a public outcry from many residents who feel a lack of communication, transparency and compassion in the handling the ongoing incident. At the forefront of peoples’ minds are health concerns, as several samples continue to be flagged for microbiological activity. On a more fundamental level, the lack of information has left residents feeling in the dark about what the real issue is and for how long this will continue. This uncertainty is especially stressful on our most vulnerable residents; young families, seniors and the working class. I would like to unpack the circumstances that have led to this frustration, what the provincial guidelines recommend, and how we can move forward.
On Wednesday August 11th, the water treatment plant servicing parts of Pierrefonds and Dollard received samples confirming microbial content in the water. Montreal’s urban agglomeration was made aware, it would be several hours before the city of Dollard would announce the advisory online. This was met with frustration from residents, myself included, who unknowingly drank, cooked supper with or brushed children’s teeth for hours with contaminated water. Many did not receive the phone call from the city, despite being enrolled in the telephone list.
The city of Dollard-des-Ormeaux has since confirmed, the only methods used to advise residents have been by automated phone call, social media and email to those subscribed. These methods have left a gap in information which puts people’s health at risk. Particularly lacking, has been communication to restaurants and other businesses affected by the water advisory. According to the city, businesses should have been notified by their landlords and made changes to their operations accordingly. The reality is, this creates a huge margin of error, especially in food service and dental clinics where sanitation is essential. Many residents can attest to the huge discrepancy in how different restaurants have addressed the advisory over the past week, sharing skepticism that all are taking the appropriate measures.
Beyond the health implications, the backlash from the community, at its core, comes from the feeling of uncertainty. Most citizens understand that the water quality is out of the city’s hands but feel left out of the loop; Being forced to find information through the grapevine, in fragmented pieces. What people really want is to be able to set their expectations and move forward appropriately. It has been difficult for people to get a clear idea of how dangerous (or not) the water is, who is at risk, what symptoms they should look out for, and what to do if they experience them, what is being done in the meantime?
For most people, the advisory is a tolerable, if not humbling annoyance. Left out of the conversation, is the question of how we alleviate the stress of this advisory for our most vulnerable residents? Seniors, for whom dehydration is a very common danger, are faced with the daunting task of fetching and transporting several days of water back to their homes. There are also many residents in my district with modest means. When buying water isn’t an option, they will be forced to boil the available tap water, often in sweltering conditions, given the heat wave in the forecast.
Where do we go from here?
The frustration surrounding the ongoing boil water advisory highlights some fundamental oversights in how we manage this kind of unexpected issue. Fortunately, we have access to many guidelines and best practices with which to improve our procedures. In consulting these guides, here are some recommendations:
To improve the line of communication between the Montreal Agglomeration, and demerged cities to avoid these kinds of important delays in diffusing public health information.
To be clear and specific in press releases: What is the cause of the advisory, explain the type of contamination, who is at risk, what symptoms they may experience and what to do if they do not feel well and when it is expected to be finished.
Provide a help-line where citizens can directly reach out for more information, rather than using the main city line.
Diffuse additional information to vulnerable citizens who may need additional help and resources.
Create a door-to-door taskforce which ensures awareness and compliance for food service and other local businesses.
Rework the existing notification system to include cell phones, new residents and others who have been missed.