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WaterOperator.org Recommends Agencies Postpone Operator Certification Renewals During COVID-19

WaterOperator.org Recommends Agencies Postpone Operator Certification Renewals During COVID-19

As communities tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the critical services that water and wastewater utilities supply are ultimately pulled into the spotlight. While reliable drinking water and wastewater services remain essential to public health, they also sustain adequate hygiene practices to prevent the spread of illness.

Central to the continuity of operations for every utility lies our water and wastewater operators. Under normal operating conditions, operators, especially those of small or rural systems, must juggle the challenges of aging infrastructure, regulatory compliance, customer communication, board collaboration, and regular operations and maintenance. During the pandemic these challenges can be exacerbated by handling COVID-19 customer concerns, cross training staff, updating contingency and emergency response plans, connecting with critical suppliers, acquiring backup equipment and parts, reaching out to neighbors or mutual aid groups, etc. Operators must take on this workload while sustaining personal health and safety.

As operators manage the ongoing challenges associated with the Novel Coronavirus and Stay-at-Home orders, we have observed that several certifying agencies are extending or postponing their deadlines for continuing education requirements and the recertification of licenses expiring during this pandemic. WaterOperator.org believes that the focus of our operators should remain on continuity of operations and customer outreach without having to manage renewal and recertification requirements at this time. Our concern for small system operators, especially those of rural communities, is that some do not have access to reliable internet. Internet access that may have previously been obtained through public libraries or recreational centers is no longer accessible as a result of community shutdowns leaving operators with no alternative locations to complete online training for certification renewal. Given the extent of these shutdowns, online trainings do not offer a reliable substitute for in-person training sessions at an equal opportunity to all operators.

Many agencies are already working to address the accessibility and burden of licensing renewal. Among the certification programs who have provided relief for operators, agencies in Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin as well as the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona are working to suspend or extend the time period for licensing renewal and continuing education requirements. In Ontario, Canada an emergency order offers relief to utilities by allowing operators with recently expired licenses to continue work while temporarily allowing non-certified, but qualified individuals to perform operational duties if deemed necessary. Taking a different approach, the drinking water program in Kentucky is currently waiving late fees for renewals until August 31, 2020. While licenses can still expire, the Kentucky Operator Certification Program will consider this grace period when performing inspections or alternate staffing plans. At this time other agencies are actively considering similar measures to the examples we’ve highlighted.

Where these actions are not possible, we ask that agencies consider supplementing other educational resources to operators in need. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency notes on their website that correspondence courses are available for operators to earn continuing education credit. They recommend reaching out to local training providers to find these courses and other training alternatives. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona is also researching self-guided distance learning and the loaning of training books distributed via mail.

For some operators, achieving educational requirements and licensing renewal through the duration of the pandemic will create an added burden that may impact their ability to protect and serve the citizens of their communities. Other operators may be left unable to run their facility due to an expired license. We are grateful to the primacy agencies that have taken positive action to support their operators. WaterOperator.org believes that these measures will help utilities of all sizes to protect their communities.


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