Travis Bickford, left, and Tylen Pooler, both with the utility Maine Water, load cases of bottled water Tuesday into Winslow Fire Department vehicles during a water distribution effort at the Oakland Fire Station. The distribution was initiated after the Kennebec Water District issued a warning that customers not consume public water due to a concern about possible contamination. The contamination scare led Waterville officials this week to discuss a phone notification system to better inform residents during emergencies. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — City officials are working on a better way to notify residents about public emergencies, a plan that had been discussed weeks before a fatal apartment fire Monday resulted in firefighting foam getting into the drinking water supply.

The city expects to have a system in place where residents can sign up to have notifications sent to their cellphones.

The system would also be used for residents to notify the city if, for instance, they want to report a problem, such as a pothole on their street, according to Mayor Jay Coelho, who said Thursday that Monday’s events served to give the city information it needs to prepare for future emergencies.

“We want to make sure we have policies and procedures in place,” he said.

Firefighters rushed Monday to the seven-story Elm Towers at 60 Elm St., where fire broke out on the fourth floor and tenant Ronald Kennerson, 65, died. They initially had an inadequate number of firefighters to get all of the 48 residents out of the building because call firefighters and volunteers were working other day jobs and could not immediately get there, according to fire Chief Shawn Esler.

The Office of State Fire Marshal had still not released information Thursday on the fire’s cause.


Firefighting foam used at Elm Towers got into the drinking water supply due to a misplaced backflow prevention device, prompting the Kennebec Water District to issue on its website Monday a “do not drink” order to residents of Waterville, Winslow, Vassalboro, Benton and Fairfield, which are part of the district. The order was lifted about 24 hours later.

City officials scrambled to notify Waterville residents that they should not drink the water. They put a notice on the city’s Facebook page and website and on the Fire-Rescue Department’s website. People rushed to stores to buy bottled water, causing some stores to run out of water quickly.

Coelho, who also posted notices on his social media platforms, worked to get $500 worth of bottled water Monday from Home Depot to give out to residents at the fire station, with the elderly and people of low income prioritized.

“We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off,” Coelho said at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. “But we did what we had to do in the moment and we got water … (and) we knew when we were going to get more pallets of water.”

Coelho was responding Tuesday to concerns resident Diane Weinstein had raised at the meeting about what she described as the city’s inadequate response to the emergency. Weinstein, a social worker, is married to Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 7.

“I think our crisis management in this situation was inadequate,” Weinstein said. “I’m glad that the city was able to successfully address the water crisis. However, I am disturbed that some emergency management interventions were not applied, or, if applied, I don’t think they were in a timely manner so that all members of the community were aware of the crisis or what to do.”


Weinstein said she learned from someone that water was available at the fire station, so she went there and got water from a person who was helpful and told her water test results would be available later.

Weinstein offered city officials several recommendations for future emergency situations. She said notifications on Facebook and the city’s website should include the date and time of the occurrence, information on when the next update is expected and how frequently information is to be posted. She also said the font was too small to be read easily, and suggested a map be posted of the neighborhood in which an issue or emergency has occurred.

“In emergency circumstances, please don’t assume that everyone looks on the city’s website or Facebook or reads the newspaper or listens to a radio,” she said.

Weinstein suggested many people at businesses, organizations and colleges would be willing to serve as volunteers and be available to hand out flyers door to door in various neighborhoods. She said signs could also be posted explaining where the emergency is and how to get water. The city could also coordinate with stores so water availability is advertised clearly, including outside the store, so people know if supplies are depleted.

Coelho agreed with Weinstein and said he and council Chairwoman Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, sat in on meetings at which a new system was discussed. He said being able to get messages to residents on their cellphones, after they sign up for it, would allow people to be notified in real time and not just on a website.

“Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t call every resident,” Coelho said of Monday’s emergency.


The type of system the City Council discussed is already used at several school districts in central Maine and other parts of the state. The districts have automated phone messages and text alerts sent to the public about snow days, campus disturbances and other matters.

Resident Nancy Sanford echoed Weinstein’s concerns and asked Coelho when he expects such a notification system to be in place. Coelho said it is in the budget for the coming year.

“I would imagine that you’d have that by the end of the year,” he said.

“Great,” Sanford replied. “It can be — and should be — used for everything.”

Coelho said Thursday a phone notification system would be for those with cellphones, not landlines, and he thinks most people use cellphones. Setting up a system is not terribly costly, he said. He estimated sending a message to about 16,000 city residents’ cellphones might cost $40 to $50 each time.

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