When Disaster Strikes, Mutual Aid Agreements Make Sure Help is on the Way

As El Niño approaches some agencies may face flooding events which are more than their in-house teams can deal with. Wouldn’t it be nice to call on some extra help during those desperate times?

That’s the whole idea behind CalWARN – the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network. When disaster strikes – CalWARN member agencies have pre-arranged agreements, procedures and lines of communications ready to go so they can quickly provide mutual aid to an agency in need. The goal is to get communities back on their feet with the basics – clean and safe drinking water and a reliable sewer system.

The system was used after the August 2014 Napa earthquake. On the water side, the City of Napa initiated a CalWARN request and three different agencies provided seven work crews to assist with water main breaks. Napa Sanitation District initiated a request and received help from a CCTV crew from Central Contra Costa Sanitary District.

“CalWARN and the mutual assistance it provided made all the difference in the world in getting water service restored for our residents as quickly as possible. This could not have been done without the swift response and support of CalWARN,” said Phil Brun, Deputy Director of Public Works for the City of Napa.

Ray-RiordanWe asked Raymond Riordan, the Chair of CalWARN’s State Steering Committee to describe the program and provide background on why it’s important for water and wastewater agencies to help one another out.

How does joining the CalWARN system help a water/wastewater agency?

The California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (CalWARN) is a mutual aid and assistance agreement between water and wastewater utilities in the State of California. Its purpose is to help provide specialized resources to member utilities that are affected by any emergency. The resources available for response include equipment like generators, personnel certified with state public health, and materials like pipe.

How often do agencies call upon CalWARN partner agencies and for what types of emergencies?

The system has deployed resources to assist member utilities eight times over the last twenty years to events like the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, 1997 El Niño storms, 2002 wild land fires, 2007 firestorm, 2010 Imperial Earthquake, 2014 Napa Earthquake, and 2015 fires.

The sign-up steps listed on the CalWARN website looks straightforward – any advice for agency leaders as they seek permission from their Board of Directors to join the system?

While there is no cost to join the agreement, utilities have signed the agreement with the idea that the mutual aid and assistance support is like an insurance policy. You may not need it today, but when the emergency hits, it provides the support that is needed. The agreement to join is available at www.calwarn.org. Each utility is different in their requirements for signing the agreement. CalWARN Steering Committee members are available to assist in the process of your utility signing the agreement.

Is flooding from an El Niño storm the type of emergency an agency might call upon the CalWARN network?

Yes, the upcoming El Niño storms would be a reason to contact CalWARN for assistance. CalWARN responded to the 1997 El Niño Storms with generators, pumps and personnel to various utilities.

When was CalWARN formed and why?

CalWARN was formed following the 1991 East Bay Hills firestorm in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills, when it was clear water utilities needed assistance from other utilities. The California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) reviewed the causes, response and recovery from the fires and recommended the agreement and program be created for water utilities. In 2001, the agreement expanded from only water utility membership to include wastewater, as many dual water and wastewater utilities exist in the state. From 1992 to 2015 over 315 utilities have signed the agreement from all areas of the state. CalWARN is open to all water and wastewater utilities. Membership is not limited to just cities. It is also open to special districts and private utilities.

How did you get your role as statewide coordinator and what have you liked most about being a water professional?

The agreement calls for members of the agreement to vote for the Regional Chair, based on the geographic regions created by CalOES. There are six Region Chairs. The Region Chairs then elect a Statewide Chair. I was elected by the Region Chairs to be the State Steering Committee Chair. I have appreciated the tremendous support utilities give each other, the professionalism in working with responders, and the cohesiveness when a disaster strikes a fellow utility. The outpouring of wanting to help is amazing.


Thanks Ray for the insights! For more information and to sign-up visit the CalWARN website – http://calwarn.org

Steps to joining the CalWARN system:

  1. Review the CalWARN Website.
  2. Review the Articles of Agreement that have been posted here.
  3. Contact your CalWARN Regional Representative with any questions.
  4. Fill out the Signature Page and have the appropriate authority from your utility sign it.
  5. Fill out the Emergency Contact Form.
  6. Scan and click here to email the Signature Page and Contact Form to the CalWARN Steering Committee Chair.


About the Author

Megan Barillo

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