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Human error, disconnected alarms were likely culprits behind Dade City water shutoff, report says

DADE CITY — Human error and alarms that were disconnected because of a malfunction were the likely culprits behind problems that briefly shut off water to the entire city last month, an in-house investigation revealed.

A report published by Dade City staffers at the request of city commissioners shows that a new protective device, installed last year, shut off the pumps on May 6 because of "too many starts." The plant operator, who was filling in after the former utilities manager had quit a couple of days earlier, said that on the morning of the outage he found a well pump to be not working and moved a switch several times to restart it.

"This resulted in the starter panel showing a fault code of 'too many starts,' " the report said. A summary of previous readings showed another code that resulted in a protective lockout. That earlier lockout somehow led to another pump shutting off.

In setting another well pump to act as backup, the operator used an incorrect pressure control, causing the motor to stop and start repeatedly. The sequence caused the protective shutoff device to kick in.

As for the two water tank alarms, they were found to have been disabled when city officials were investigating the incident. One had the power unplugged and the phone line disconnected. The other, at another site, was disconnected, with the backup battery removed. Bugs in that system had resulted in hourly false alarm calls, the report said. Those alarms were supposed to alert crews when water levels in the tanks got too low.

The water outage was brief, lasting only about an hour. But because of the low water pressure, the entire city's 5,200 customers were asked to boil water for at least one minute before drinking it or cooking with it during that weekend. Tests the following Monday showed no contamination, and officials lifted the boil notice. However, some residents complained that they didn't get word of the notice and feared that the water would make them or their families sick.

The complaints prompted city officials to review ways to improve their notification system. They had relied on television stations, the city's website, a newspaper, a subscriber notification service and the county's reverse 911 system to get the message out. However, the county's system alerted only those with landline phones. The other system, called Nixle, alerted cell phones users, but people have to subscribe to get the alerts, so not everyone was notified.

"The notification system was very weak," public works director Lennie Naeyaert told commissioners Tuesday night.

The report showed that of the county's 4,515 landlines, only 97 were successfully notified. And only 260 city residents subscribed to Nixle.

The resulting chaos and city officials' failure to pinpoint the cause of the problem prompted commissioners to call for an independent investigation. Former utilities manager Rick Whalen accused city officials of trying to pin the blame on him. He offered to strap himself to a lie detector and called on city officials to do the same.

However, City Manager William Poe said an in-house review would be sufficient. Commissioners agreed earlier this month to wait before calling for an outside agency to investigate.

Naeyaert said the city has hired a new utilities manager with 28 years of experience and put in new equipment to monitor water levels.

On Tuesday, city commissioners seemed satisfied.

"There was no intent of sabotage or any malfeasance," Commissioner Curtis Beebe pointed out.

Commissioner Camille Hernandez thanked officials for solving the mystery.

"We learned a lesson," she said. "It was a hard way to learn it, but we are at least moving in the right direction."

Human error, disconnected alarms were likely culprits behind Dade City water shutoff, report says 06/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 8:44pm]
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