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Archived - On the front lines of COVID-19 prevention, Jon Freda and his Water Distribution colleagues keep the taps flowing so the rest of us can wash our hands

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April 11, 2020
Feature Stories

In the fight against COVID-19, the public’s marching orders are clear.

Stay home.

Wash your hands.

Seems straightforward. But what does it take to keep a city of one million people supplied with clean water during a pandemic?

As a supervisor in the City of Ottawa’s Water Distribution Branch, Jon Freda knows a thing or two about that.

A man in a yellow jumpsuit and safety vest
Jon Freda and his team are playing a crucial role in the City’s response to COVID-19. They’re making sure our water infrastructure continues to deliver safe, clean drinking water to the public so they can do their part and wash their hands.

What is it like to work in the Water Distribution Branch these days?

It’s very different! Normally a lot of the work we do is focused on proactively maintaining the city’s water infrastructure. During this state of emergency, we’re only sending out crews to deal with urgent issues, like leaks and watermain breaks.

We’re also doing the behind-the-scenes work to make sure we can get moving on those proactive maintenance projects the minute we get the green light.

Is it still busy? What’s the work like?

During the pandemic, our focus is on making sure there are as few disruptions to service as possible.

We were really lucky this winter and didn’t have very many watermain breaks, but we’ve had 10 in the last month, so it’s definitely been busy.

When there are leaks or watermain breaks or anything that means shutting off an area’s water supply while repairs are underway, we work as quickly as possible. We realize not having water in your home or workplace is inconvenient, on the best day. And right now, with a pandemic on our hands, it’s incredibly important that we keep those taps running so people can wash their hands, wash their dishes, do laundry, etc.

If there is an issue, how are people notified?

If we have to turn off the water temporarily, we will still go door-to-door because that’s how we can give residents the most notice. We’ll knock on your door and then back up so we’re respecting physical distancing guidelines.

How are your crews staying safe on the job?

They wear protective equipment, and we make sure they travel to and from job sites solo, rather than having multiple people in the same vehicle. Staff clean and disinfect vehicles before and after they’re used, and we’re really careful to maintain our physical distance while on site.

We’re also relying on the public to do their part to stay home as much as possible.

A man in a hard hat takes a selfie in front of crews repairing a broken watermain.
Staying home is the best way the public can protect front-line workers. That includes crews working on critical infrastructure like our water supply. Steve Sadler, pictured here, hopes people will think of them when they’re deciding whether to go out for something that isn’t absolutely necessary.

Are there any silver linings to this whole experience?

Access to water tops the list of services that are literally essential to human life. It’s always important work, and I think that, especially right now, I speak for my whole team when I say we take a lot of pride in making sure people have reliable access to clean water during this crisis.

It’s also been amazing to witness how talented and creative my team is. I’ve got staff at home doing some great research into how we can improve our work. One is even teaching himself to do certain repairs on our equipment and monitoring devices so we can keep more of that work in-house in the future.

How is your household adjusting to being stuck at home?

My wife and I are both working from home and it’s definitely been an adjustment! My kids are doing well, but I know it’s not easy for them. My ten-year-old daughter has been a really big help with my youngest, who’s six. That part has been really nice to see.

Do you have any advice for the public?

To prepare for any emergency, you should have at least a three-day supply of water for each person in your household. Generally, that means at least two litres of drinking water per adult per day, along with at least two litres of water per person per day for cleaning and cooking. You can do this at home by filling up bottles or jugs you already have with water from the tap.

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