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Four reasons why a dam owner should want an Emergency Action Plan

EAPs protect the facility and the community, and most importantly, a dam owner’s sanity

Don’t get me wrong, I love listening to a thunderstorm. But on one particular Saturday evening, my family and I were finishing dinner during a severe storm when the phone rang. One of my clients, a dam owner, was concerned because his field tech had found a “spot” on a dam nearby. What did this “spot” mean? What do we do next? What about the people living downstream of the dam? Should we be worried?

This is the call no dam owner wants to make. But the critical piece of responding to any potential crisis isn’t the crisis itself, but the preparation you’ve done in advance of such an occurrence. That’s what Emergency Action Plans (EAP) for dams are all about—helping you minimize impacts, mitigate consequences, and facilitate a quick recovery should a dam breach occur.

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All states, except for Alabama, require some sort of dam safety program. But don’t look at a requirement as another bureaucratic check box you need to check. EAPs are something a dam owner should want to create, even if it isn’t required. Here’s why:

Reason 1: EAPs can reduce liability
If a dam owner doesn’t have a plan, that doesn’t relieve him/her of culpability. Far from it. A dam owner should not only protect their asset, but more importantly, protect the people living downstream of the asset. An EAP allows the dam owner to exercise reasonable care, legally calculated from three factors: risk of an accident occurring, magnitude of harm should the risk happen, and availability of alternatives.

Reason 2: EAPs can keep you calm in a time of crisis
EAPs help you respond to an emergency situation in a calm, calculated manner. If you have a plan already written, you don’t have to react emotionally. A plan greatly reduces the panic an organization feels when facing a potential crisis and the implications to the surrounding community. A plan also allows you to communicate with the public in a way that relieves their concerns and provides the necessary resources and contacts so everyone is communicating appropriately.

Reason 3: EAPs help protect your investment
How do you respond to an issue at a dam? You want to protect the integrity of the dam first and foremost, because remedial action often prevents a total dam failure. Therefore, a plan is integral to helping you protect your investment. An EAP provides step-by-step measures to address a deficiency.

EAPs also outline the key contacts you’ll need to interface with during the crisis. So you can protect your investment while also protecting the community verses going into technical “engineer” mode—you can think in a more strategic and global manner.

Then there are the supplies. You don’t want to locate pumps or lights at 2 a.m. on a dark and stormy night. EAPs allow you to predetermine how to get what you need, when you need it.

Reason 4: If you fail to plan, plan to fail
If you have no plan in place, you’re in trouble. Many states offer templates you can use to get started. Once you have a template, the plan becomes less overwhelming, and reaching out to an experienced consultant can help you complete an EAP in a few weeks. I’ve worked with clients to produce EAPs within a week or two. We’ve been instrumental in guiding our clients through the EAP process and involving local agencies so that there is a seamless transition through all phases of the plan. Even more importantly, before we even start with the planning process, we do a breach inundation map. This tells us where, if the dam should fail, major flooding would occur. It also shows evacuation areas.

Part of your plan should also include a tabletop exercise (think of it as a crisis “run through”) at least once every five years. Your plan is a living document and enacting a crisis scenario really tests your plan and allows you to find, and then fill, any potential gaps in coverage.

EAPs: How to get started
So where do you start? There are many resources out there to help, and first I’d recommend starting with your State Dam Safety Engineer. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) also has some really great information. Finally, check out the National Dam Safety Program through FEMA. Oh, and don’t forget to contact a knowledgeable technical consultant too (such as myself).

So, back to that call I received that Saturday evening from a worried dam owner. How’d it end? Well, I walked him through the EAP we had previously prepared together and we determined the dam’s condition and what level of emergency we were facing—all without leaving my house. We discussed next steps and how we intended to monitor the situation and protect the community. And guess what? It worked. Crisis was averted, dam was intact, and residents were safe. And these are the very reasons why you need your own EAP.

Tony is a senior associate in our Raleigh, NC office. Considered a dam specialist, he’s authored articles on EAPs and has provided analysis and design on more than 100 dam projects. 

The critical piece of responding to any potential crisis isn’t the crisis itself, but the preparation you’ve done in advance of such an occurrence.

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