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The Downriver Regional Storage and Transport System (DRSTS) was a major wastewater transport improvement program undertaken by Wayne County and 13 suburban Detroit, Michigan, communities to eliminate Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSO's) and mitigate basement flooding during wet weather events. Overall, nearly 19 miles of mid to large diameter sewer was installed, largely by tunneling methods. Construction of the 130 million project took place over five years through ten separate construction contracts, involving seven different contractors. The project was constructed in eight different communities with the majority of the tunnel sewer routes located along County roadways bounded by two or more communities. The project's geographical limits and complex coordination needs required communication planning that went far beyond a simple organization chart with emergency telephone numbers. As part of the project's Public Involvement Program activities, a crisis communication plan was developed and implemented that not only provided guidelines for potential “crisis” situations, but also established the framework for effective day-to-day communications both during and postconstruction

The idea for a crisis communication plan surfaced during the early stages of the DRSTS project, when an accident occurred on an unrelated Wayne County construction project. While watching the events of the accident unfold, County representatives noted the aggressive media efforts to sensationalize the story with day-long live coverage, and impromptu site interviews with field personnel who were ill-prepared to handle the media circus. The events were further intensified by the lack of a structure to provide timely and accurate information to the media.

The immediate lesson learned from this experience was to make sure key individuals of Wayne County and their client communities would be informed of any incident that had news-making potential, and that a communication plan be in place to deal with potential crisis situations that could occur. The event led to one of the DRSTS project's most useful documents known as the Crisis Communication Handbook.

A “crisis” generally conjures up visions of life threatening emergency situations, as it was in the case of the unrelated project accident. A crisis can also be a situation where no one is in immediate danger, but if not properly handled, could escalate and generate inaccurate negative publicity. This broader definition of a crisis was adopted for developing the handbook. The purpose of the handbook was to get everyone thinking about how to react in a crisis situation before it occurred, and to provide a reference guide to use as a resource during a potential crisis.

Since almost 80 percent of the DRSTS project involved tunneling construction with its inherent risks, the relatively higher potential for a crisis situation to arise on the DRSTS project justified the need for a formal plan.

The paper describes how the Crisis Communication Handbook was developed and the steps taken to instruct the project team on its use. It also details the items such as notification procedures, potential crisis situations anticipated for the project and instructions on how to react to them, insights on how to respond to the media, and identification of individuals and responsibilities for the crisis communication team to effectively manage the exchange of information during an event. Actual experiences encountered on the project are discussed, including incidents involving a hydrogen sulfide odor release, a small tunnel fire, and a ground settlement condition, with conclusions on how the pre-planning worked to minimize the events from escalating to a major crisis. The paper also examines how plan development benefited dayto- day project communications, and continues to be a useful post-construction tool. The lessons learned have application to both large and small construction projects.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2004-01-01

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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