Backflow Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security

With ongoing developments surrounding the topic of terrorism and terroristic threats to our safety, conversations about the vulnerabilities to our domestic water supplies and systems are becoming more frequent and more serious. The chemical and biological threats consist of chemical warfare agents, industrial chemical poisons, pathogens and biotoxins – most of which are not disinfected by chlorination. The concentrations of some dangerous chemicals, which can cause immediate death or debilitation, range from 50mg/L to 5000mg/L in 0.5 L of drinking water (ORTIZ).

In the aftermath of 9/11, the then EPA administrator, Christie Whitman stated, “People are worried that a small amount of some chemical or biological agent – a few drops for instance – could result in significant threats to the health of large numbers of people. I want to assure people – that scenario couldn’t happen. It would take large amounts to threaten the safety of a city water system. We believe it would be very difficult for anyone to introduce the quantities needed to contaminate an entire system.” Statements such as these made by officials are dangerous, as they promote a false sense of security. The fact is, our water supplies are vulnerable and the Department of Homeland Security agrees that we need to address the risk (WaterWorld).

In addressing the vulnerability to our water systems, it is understood that the distribution system is one of the most vulnerable parts. There are many ways in which contaminants can purposefully, or accidentally, enter the distribution system. The most likely scenario for an attack, in which the goal is to execute mass casualties, is to arrange a simple backflow contamination event (WaterWorld).

What is backflow? The American Backflow Prevention Association (ABPA) is an international association founded to protect drinking water through backflow prevention. They define backflow as the undesirable reversal of flow of non-potable water or other substances through cross-connection and into the piping of a public water system or consumer’s potable water system. Although ABPA’s primary focus is education and technical assistance surrounding accidental or unintentional backflow contamination, their efforts undeniable help protect Americans from a possible backflow attack of a terroristic nature.

A backflow attack occurs when a pump is used to overcome the pressure gradient that is present in the distribution system’s pipes. This can easily be accomplished by using pumps that are readily available for rent or purchase online or at most home improvement stores. After pressure gradient present in the system has been overcome and a contaminant introduced, siphoning effects act to pull the contaminant into the flowing system. Once the contaminant is present in the pipes, the normal movement of water in the system acts to disseminate it throughout the network, effecting areas surrounding the introduction point. The introduction point, or the site of intentional contamination, can be anywhere in the system such as a reservoir, pump, valve, water tank, fire hydrant, commercial buildings, or residence. (WaterWorld).

The Department of Homeland Security has put a stake in the ground when it comes to the importance of having and maintaining necessary backflow prevention. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requires that all backflow preventers installed in fire protection systems be inspected at least annually by a certified Inspector. If an Inspector finds that a backflow preventer, whether domestic or fire-related, is lacking or not in working condition, they are required, by the Department of Homeland Security, to report the deficiency to the local Water Department and the State Fire Marshal. Failing to do so puts that Inspector’s license at risk.

“If you see something, you’re supposed to say something,” explained Integrated Fire Protection Fire Sprinkler Superintendent, Jason Johnson, “I compare it to a neighborhood watch program. We are the ones trained to see backflow issues, so we have a responsibility to do our part in keeping domestic water safe and free from contaminants.”

Just last month, Integrated Fire Protection completed the Fire Sprinkler Inspection for a major institution in Georgia who had complained that their domestic water appeared to be dirty from time to time. After Integrated Fire Protection’s inspection and investigation, it was clear that their domestic tank needed a backflow prevention device to keep contaminated water out of their domestic supply. This is a perfect example of an entire institution that Backflow Preventorwould have been unprotected in the event of a terrorist attack on the area’s water distribution system. In just three days Integrated Fire Protection eliminated that risk by installing a backflow prevention device on the facilities domestic water tank.

If you have concerns about the quality of your facility’s water or if you would like to receive verification that your facility has properly functioning backflow prevention, please call us at (770) 458-8828 or email [email protected]. It would be our pleasure to investigate your system, address any concerns you may have, and assist you in resolving any challenges you are experiencing.

Kroll, Dan, Karl King, Terry Engelhardt, Mark Gibson, and Katy Craig. “Terrorism Vulnerabilities to the Water Supply and the Roll of the Consumer: A Water Security White Paper.” WaterWorld. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. .

Ortiz, Antonia. Distribution System Water Quality Modeling. Colorado: Colorado State U, 2008. Print.