When Public Works doesn't work

Considering the taxes Baltimore homeowners pay, we should be able to rely on Public Works to actually work.

For eight days, I had the distinct pleasure of no running water in my house. I tried defrosting pipes with the help of friendly neighbors and a plumber, only to find that my external water meter was cracked and the city's services would be required to fix it. I consider myself a fairly tolerant person, but after more than 200 hours without water, my patience ran out (like my water).

There is a serious problem with the functionality of water services in the city of Baltimore (among the other dysfunctional services the city has to offer). I completely understand that we are experiencing historic lows in temperature and inclement weather that can potentially limit the efficiency of emergency crews, and that there are a number of water main breaks that take precedence over more isolated issues (though, the naive citizen in me does not understand why the same expertise would be required to change a water meter and repair a water main break — I will leave that to the experts). But eight days? That's eight days of buying gallons of drinking water, having take out dinner every night and being grateful for the hospitality of some great friends for the daily shower. And apparently, I wasn't alone. As of Wednesday, more than 8,000 city residents had reported water leaks or outages this month, and 6,000 of their complaints had yet to be resolved.

It is not really an issue with the operators responding to 311 calls who, for the most part, have been empathetic to my plight on the phone. I am most frustrated with the poor flow (like my water) of information. The operators are not given any information to help its citizens. I received contradictory information on the phone as to whether I need to be home during the repair, whether there is a queue system for the issues at hand, and whether there was even a supervisor I could talk to. Inconsistency in communication during an emergency situation makes everything significantly worse. I was told twice to expect a call in a 48-hour period (most recently when my issue was escalated four days into my personal drought); that call never came. Moreover, not providing a helpful contact to identify where your issue falls among the other ongoing issues is utterly frustrating and frankly unacceptable in today's times. It took seven days for me to figure out that the people who replace water meters only work Monday through Friday, and that the emergency crews on the weekends are a much smaller staff focused on larger issues like water main breaks, but who may be able to change meters — time-permitting. On Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the implementation of a 24-hour "command center" to handle water issues. It's about time; some people have been without water for a dozen days.

Not having water for an extended period of time has led me to do a lot of thinking about how a situation like this would be handled in another field. As a medical professional, I naturally thought about health care. While certainly an inefficient system in itself, patients are not turned away when they have medical needs. Medical professionals often stay late hours and are consistently on call for their patients. There also is consistently a resource who can be reached in emergencies (and they will call back). When there are more patients in the hospital on a weekend than the scheduled medical professionals can cover, additional workers will come in to make sure patients are taken care of. We are reliably running (unlike my water) around the hospital making sure that issues are resolved or at least addressed. During my last 311 phone call, I was instructed to call the mayor's office and the city law department to have my issues addressed. It seems crazy that there is not an intermediary to contact, but after making those calls, in addition to calling my councilman and Baltimore's Department of Public Works, my water miraculously returned earlier this week.

It might be difficult to compare and contrast health care and water services in Baltimore, but I certainly could see a difference over the last week. Considering the taxes homeowners pay in the city, I think we should be able to rely on Public Works to work more efficiently than it does.

Bharath Ravichandran is a clinical pharmacist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His email is ravichandran.bharath@gmail.com.

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