Boil Water Advisory: A Lack of Timely Communication in Montreal

TL;DR

My water was brown this morning. It took over an hour and a half for me to find out if it was safe to drink, wash, or anything else with it. We can do better. When something goes wrong that affects your customers, let them know what to expect!

The Long Version

Around 8:30 this morning I turned on the tap to find the water was the colour of weak coffee. Gross. My thoughts went something like this: Is it safe to drink? How about wash my baby’s face, which at the time was covered in banana & oatmeal? Who knows. Is it just my apartment? Can I shower? Do I want to shower in brown water even if it is safe?

Twitter confirmed that it wasn’t just my apartment:

The Montreal website, Montreal Twitter, and Montreal Twitter Account all had no indication of what was going on, and when I called 311 I got a “We can’t answer your call, please call back later” message! Total communication breakdown. Was it safe wash my baby’s face?

Around 9 311 actually answered and they told me that there is a problem at the water treatment plant affecting my whole borough, (later I discovered it’s both my borough and the neighbouring one, for a combined population of 135,682 people). Update (11 AM): As I was writing this the boil water advisory was expanded to cover most of the city. I was told to boil water for 10 minutes. Then, at 9:04 Montreal finally tweeted:

Ok, what about washing my baby’s face? (Actually, he’d been washed at this point using some water from the Brita).

20 minutes later the phone rang and a recording told me a boil water advisory was in effect, and I should boil water for 1 minute. So, is it 1 minute or 10? At this point I want a page on the city website that tells me what I should do with my water when there’s a boil water advisory. It turns out there is one, but I found out about it because it was posted to Facebook, not from any official source, (it looks like they think 1 minute of boiling is sufficient).

Finally, around 10, Montreal tweeted a link to it as well:

It took me way too long to find out what was going on this morning. It should have been different.

Make it right next time

It is not hard get information to people who are looking for it. Next time there’s a boil water advisory, (or any emergency), I recommend:

  • Posting to social media immediately. This is super easy, there’s no code to write on a website, (don’t wait until the social media person comes in at 9).
  • Updating the city and/or borough websites ASAP. Yes, this may require someone to write HTML, that’s why you just posted to your social media accounts.
  • Linking to the “What to do in a Boil Water Advisory” document in your initial social media post, or in another post 2 seconds later. Don’t wait an hour to link to that document.

Conclusion

This was a preventative boil water advisory. Hopefully the city will make a better effort in the case of a more severe emergency.

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