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Talking on Water with Tim Faas

Posted By Bonnifer J. Ballard, Tuesday, May 8, 2018

 

Talking on Water Episode 3 - Tim Faas

Announcer: Welcome to the Talking on Water Podcast, a service provided by the Michigan Section at the American Water Works Association. This podcast offers insights and useful career information for Michigan water professionals. Now, here's your host, Pat Staskiewicz.

Pat: Welcome to the third episode of Talking on Water. In this episode, we speak to Tim Faas from Canton Township. Tim shares his experience working on the organization of Michigan WARN and discusses the benefits of membership and emergency planning. We're today with Tim Faas, the Municipal Service Director for Canton Township. Welcome, Tim.

Tim: Thank you, Pat.

Pat: Tim, if you could just give us a little bit of your background on how you ended up in Canton Township and what got you interested in the water industry.

Tim: Sure. I've been at this for many years now, a little over 30 years of a career in this industry. I started working in Ontario, which is where I grew up, and started working there as a consulting engineer after I finished my engineering degree. I worked for a number of municipal clients in and around the Windsor area doing various projects. An opportunity came up at the City of Windsor for me to take a two-year short-term contract position. My objective there was to go gain some credibility with the city, let them know that we would be great at doing bigger projects for the city and go back to consulting. Well, I took that first position as a manager in the public works department, finished my two years out, and lo and behold, I got promoted. So I have stuck it out ever since then. I've really enjoyed my career in municipal government. That was really the initial step that got me into government.

My wife and I immigrated in the mid-1990s to Michigan, and I took a position with a local wastewater utility authority in Western Wayne County as their director. I really got interested on the water and wastewater side specifically at that point. I've been a strong proponent of the environment for my entire life. I certainly value water, the benefits that it has to Michigan and the nation as a whole. Being able to do something to positively affect water and water quality was really a big motivator for me to get into my career.

Pat: I'm also in the municipal field, and one of the things I like is the ownership and really having the cradle-to-grave ownership of the utilities. Can you speak to that a little bit and the difference between the public and private life?

Tim: It's very different. Privately, you're vested for the duration of your project. Typically, once that project is over, you're done. But on the municipal side, when you are involved from the inception of preliminary conceptual designs to the final disposal of the asset or the project that you're working on, which could be theoretically 70 to 100 years in duration, you're vested for your entire career in whatever project you've been involved in. So it's very different. There's much more sense of ownership in what you're doing, and definitely a major commitment is required to do the right thing, because 20 years from now, you might regret a decision that you made from the outset. I think you think things through much more carefully and much more deliberately than if you're just vested for a short period of time.

Pat: Tell us a little bit about your experience in Canada versus the United States.

Tim: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I had a perception of what the environmental regulatory field was like in the US living on a border community for many years. But not until I moved and I realized that Michigan's environmental regulation climate or rules and requirements are far more stringent than anything we had dealt with in Ontario. I believe that's still to be the case, and I think that's good. It definitely is something that's going to enhance and protect the water resources long term. There is I think maybe a misconception even from those of us that worked in the field of what the regulatory climate in Canada was versus the regulatory climate here in Michigan. Those rules are there for a reason and those rules will benefit society over the long term without doubt in my mind.

Pat: Dealing with the public is always a challenge and it can be rewarding. Can you give us some examples of some of your opportunities you had working with the public?

[0:04:30]

Tim: With my current position, I oversee four major departments. I oversee the planning department for our community. We're number one or number two highest rate of growth communities in the State of Michigan, and have been for the better part of two decades. I oversee building and inspection services, which after planning is kind of done with their part of the project, they inspect the build-out of various commercial and residential developments. And then I also oversee engineering and public works, so I kind of get all four sides of the municipal development book if you want to call it that. As part of that process, there's a tremendous amount of public input opportunity and what I'd call general feedback. People are more and more difficult to deal with as communities build out. That has been a great challenge for us. It was easy when it was all farmland and developers were coming in and laying down 200, 300, 400 lot subdivisions and commercial was being built out when there were no neighbors around. Now, our community of 97,000 people is about 90% built out and now, a little 8, 10, 15 lot development comes in and there's public outcry over that development. How dare you let this happen in our community? You're destroying the fabric of our community.

It is definitely more challenging as the community gets further and further built out, but again, those public processes and opportunities for public input are there so that the voices of the local residents can be heard and can be incorporated in development plans. We definitely have a lot of challenges on that front. And then generally, I'd say, the greatest advancement in my career in dealing with the public has now been social media. The influence that social media has on things as simple as water quality, a spill, a local water emergency, a wastewater emergency, it's a great tool for us to use, but it's also a very difficult tool for us to manage because it is totally unacceptable by most of the people that would follow us on Facebook or Twitter to have to wait until Monday to get an answer to something that happened Saturday morning. That answer is going to have to happen probably no later than noon hour on Saturday. The job now from the social and public engagement standpoint is now 24/7/365.

The way that we've addressed that is we have three social media website administrators, one of which is myself that monitor what's going on, what discussion is occurring on our Facebook and Twitter accounts around the clock literally. We post as quickly as we can especially when something negative or something erroneous has been posted on our Facebook page. That's become a different challenge now. I'd say just general lack of patience by the public of wanting to wait till Monday when the office opens again they get a response to something. Those days are gone. That's definitely been a major technological advancement during my career.

Pat: Since you've been in the industry so long, I'm sure you've dealt with many emergencies. One particular group that's near and dear to your heart is Michigan WARN and that cooperation between utilities for dealing with emergencies. Can you speak with that?

Tim: Michigan WARN is the Wastewater and Water Agency Response Network. It's a mutual aid system that was set up in the mid 2000s nationwide. Each state has its own separate WARN program. It was established in response to a number of devastating hurricanes down in Texas and Florida. It was pretty clear following those hurricanes that while there was good preparation and response on the police and fire side, there was not a good response on the water and wastewater utility side. That really forced the creation of the WARN programs. Michigan adopted that program in 2007, and we've been operating under a steering community structure that is supported by American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation through our local MWEA here in Michigan, the American Public Works Association and Michigan World Water Association. Four big state associations back this program, and it allows for mutual aid, whether an emergency or not, allows for mutual aid between communities under a Grade 2 terms in advance through a contract. We have about 20% by population of the State of Michigan covered by these agreements.

Now, there are some pretty sizable communities that make up that 20%. We only have 31 members right now. One of our long-term goals is to grow that membership so that all communities in the state of Michigan are part of Michigan WARN. It really simplifies the response required during an emergency and makes it easier for individuals like myself and yourself that have to respond to these emergencies and not have to worry about the paperwork while you're in the height of that emergency. This paperwork is executed in advance. The beauty of it is it doesn't cost anything to join Michigan WARN or be a member of Michigan WARN, but it does require your legislative body, whether that's a city council, a township board, an authority board or a county to actually approve entering in to this agreement. Once entered into, you're in it for life unless you choose to withdraw. It affords a major advantage when a real emergency does strike.

[0:10:13]

We've been fortunate in Michigan that we haven't had any emergencies that have hit the threshold of requiring Michigan WARN to activate, but we've been close. We had frozen water pipes in Marquette County a few years ago, during the big blizzard. What was that? I forgot the term that they called it?

Pat: The Polar Vortex.

Tim: The Polar Vortex, yes. The state activated a utility response not through Michigan WARN, although they did ask for our assistance, in response to the frozen pipes in Marquette County up in the Upper Peninsula. But more recently, in Oakland County, the 14-mile road transmission main break. It affected I think 310,000 people in Southeast Michigan. I personally, as a resident of that area, was affected without water for eight days. That was again an event that almost triggered a WARN response. WARN helped a few of our member communities that were affected. We've been fortunate that we haven't had anything major yet hit, but when it does and when you do seek to recoup your costs through FEMA ultimately who is kind of the paying agent in a very large scale disaster, if you have this agreement in place in advance, then it's a done deal. You're going to get reimbursed. FEMA, EPA approved the WARN agreements. This is a national program. There won't be any questioning beyond what would be routinely expected when you're submitting a reimbursement request from FEMA for the cost associated with the response.

If that agreement isn't in place before the emergency happens and you try to seek reimbursement, FEMA will make your life difficult. Again, I'm talking about an agreement that is free. There is no cost to belong. It takes a little bit of time to maybe get it through your city council or your township board or your county commission. But once you have it, you have it for life. The other beauty is that you basically get to keep your resources under your control. So if Ottawa County responded under Michigan WARN to somewhere else in the state, and all of a sudden Ottawa County was hit with a major disaster itself and you needed to bring those people and that equipment back, you can. There is no repercussion, nothing negative can occur as a result of your withdrawal of those resources. It's voluntary, you get reimbursement from the party who you're responding to and it doesn't cost you anything. It's what we call no cost insurance policy.

Pat: Tim, does it make more sense if you're a large or a small utility to join?

Tim: It does not. There are advantages to both, no question. We generally have mostly larger utilities or communities that are currently our members, but I think that's typically how these programs grow. There's probably a greater benefit for the smaller utilities to members because having worked over 30 years in this field, there's a lot of these handshake agreements out there where if I have trouble, you'll come help me. Well, those are the agreements that drive lawyers crazy and sometimes those are agreements that drive city managers, township managers, and county commissioners crazy when something goes wrong. Handshake agreements worked in the past but in the litigious environment that we live in today and their requirement to have coverage for insurance or workers' compensation and these sorts of things, a formal agreement is a much better approach. Those are just a few reasons and benefits of being a member in the Michigan WARN Program.

The other thing that we do, there's the steering committee that represents each of the eight regions for Michigan WARN, and those eight regions follow the same regions that the state police has set up across Michigan. Those eight individuals sit on the steering committee together with representatives of those four major associations that I mentioned. The 12 of us are the steering committee that make up the Michigan WARN. We're there to facilitate the mutual aid agreements between the communities to grow membership and to also conduct and coordinate training. Training is another big benefit that we have that we can offer, and we can coordinate with our partners at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pat: Tim, have you ever had the opportunity to use your own emergency training?

[0:14:30]

Tim: Yes. In Canton, for example, we've had a couple disasters, both smaller ones, one that occurred in our community which was a tornado that oddly enough occurred the night before Christmas Eve two years ago. Who would have thought a late December tornado would come out of nowhere literally and come and touch down in Canton? That was definitely a little bit of a surprise. It was an F1 so it was a relatively small tornado. It did some substantial damage to an industrial park and a small regional airport in our community. That kept us plenty busy over the ensuing couple of weeks. Fortunately, there were not any water or wastewater facilities affected by that event. But the other two that come to mind, one again is within Canton and within Southeast Michigan. Two years ago, we had the flooding in Southeast Michigan which was a FEMA declared emergency and there was actually reimbursement issued to the communities and to residents directly for the damages that they suffered. Again, we were lucky we didn't have any damage to any public facilities during that event, but there was a tremendous amount of basement flooding that occurred in Southeast Michigan.

On the water side, we have landed assistance under the Michigan WARN agreement to one of our neighboring communities, the City of Plymouth, a number of years back, where as a result of a high pressure spike from our regional water service provider, they simultaneously had six water main breaks. I think it was on a Friday. They're a small community. They have one crew to deploy, to start working on breaks. They started calling in neighboring communities. They were a member and we were a member of the MiWARN program, so we used that program in a non-emergency response to assist them, and there were a couple of other contractors that were called in to also help with that emergency.

Again, there's no cost insurance policy. Insurance is something that you need to have and you hope you never need to use it. Maybe it gives you a sense of a peace of mind to know that there's people that have you back and people that will respond and respond with the right crews and the right resources, and you're not going to get gouged from a pricing standpoint on any kind of emergency response. There's a number of very positive things by being a member of the Michigan WARN mutual aid program.

Pat: Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about more of your professional development and how you've used your interaction with folks in the industry to help grow your career.

Tim: My first foray into emergency management was back in Windsor. I was told my first week that I was in charge of emergency response for the city, and I'm like, "What? You've got to be kidding. I don't know anything about emergency response." So we talked with fire and police and what we resolved to do at that time was really transfer that responsibility to the fire department which is where it traditionally belongs. I kind of screwed at my first real foray into emergency management. But we were still a major player because we had tremendous amount of resources to build a respond to major community emergencies. That was really where I first got an interest in emergency management. Through my career, ever since then, I realized the importance and the value that it brings to an organization. I'm blessed to work for an organization that has a really strong relationship between fire, police and public works and utility sides. We work really closely together. That's not true of all organizations, and I understand that. That becomes a challenge with being part of even Michigan WARN.

Preparedness is really important. I think one thing that we've seen over the last ten years is more of a prominence of public works and utility professionals being recognized as first responders. That's a big move in terms of recognizing and getting credibility with your local fire employees' emergency management people. You have to learn by doing and training becomes a component of that. We've had the benefit of doing a number of major training exercises within our community because we have strong emergency management support capabilities. The Michigan WARN program has also landed itself to create some new training opportunities with the Department of Environmental Quality and with the Environmental Protection Agency.

We just did a big functional exercise November 29th of 2017 in the State Emergency Operation Center where about 80 people gathered to simulate a wide scale tornado outbreak in Ionia County. We had some WARN members in the room. We had non-WARN members in the room as well just trying to observe and see how we would handle the situation. And then we had a very diverse group of individuals from the State of Michigan. Homeland Security, Department of Health, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Quality were all in the room together with the EPA, and we went through an eight-hour long drill if you will. Part of it was some training; part of it was the true functional exercise, which is an exercise level over and above what they call a traditional tabletop where you're just kind of passing paper back and forth and discussing an issue. We were actually doing things. We're actually simulating as though we were responding like we were back in our own communities. Although we were all physically in the same room, we were simulating how we would respond to various emergencies centered around Ionia, reaching from Grand Haven all the way across to Lake St. Clair. There was severe weather outbreak across all of Southern Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

[0:20:09]

It was the first of those exercises conducted in Michigan. It was the fifth of those exercises conducted in the United States. That's invaluable training that EPA paid for and DEQ supported, Homeland Security supported. Every time we do one of these, we learn something. I'll tell you, as the chair of Michigan WARN, I learned a ton of what we need to do to be more prepared next time when we do one of these training exercises. Let's pray that all we'll ever have to do is training exercises. But if we do need to respond every time we do one of these trainings, we just get that much better at it. It's like a professional athlete trains for any kind of competition. You can't just show up and win the downhill ski event at Pyeongchang. You have to train for years and hone your skills in order to even be competitive in that event. That's our philosophy and Michigan WARN is again another opportunity for people to learn about training and actually participate in training for emergency responses.

If there's any listener out there that is interested in Michigan WARN, go to our website which www.MIWARN.org. MIWARN.org is our website. You can get information there. You can see a little bit more about our program in what the mutual aid agreement looks like. Hit the contact button, fill that out. That ends up getting routed back to my office and we'll reach out to you. Hopefully listeners can become members. Also, if there's anybody that's just generally interested in emergency management, don't hesitate to reach out to us and we'll be happy to talk with you.

Pat: Thank you for your time, Tim.

Tim: You're welcome. Thanks, Pat.

Announcer: Thank you for listening to this episode of Talking on Water by the Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association. Please contact us at 517-292-2912 or feedback at mi-water.org with any comments or ideas on future shows. We'd love to hear from you.

[0:22:13] End of Audio

Tags:  Faas  MIWARN 

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