Flooded Out? Don't Call the Water Department : City services: A pipe breaks, and for three hours a mud slide builds before the shut-off valve is found--by firefighters.

Jane G. Pisano is dean of the School of Public Administration at USC.

We've been sleeping in shifts at my house when it rains. We watch anxiously for signs that the hillside behind us is moving. Days ago, two pipes burst on property 600 feet above us, eroding our rain-soaked hill. Waterfalls of mud cascaded over our retaining walls. We are told that the fate of our hill and our home is now in Mother Nature's hands.

Mine is not a storm story but a tale of two city departments that holds some important lessons. Here is what happened.

When water began flowing in the early afternoon, we placed the first of four increasingly frantic calls to the Department of Water and Power. When mud began flowing several hours later, my husband tracked the river to its source. Still no DWP, so we asked the Fire Department for help. More than three hours after we discovered the problem, the firefighters located the water meter--it was a block and a half away--and were able to shut the valve. The DWP did finally come, at the insistence of the Fire Department, six hours after the first call, but was of no help. With the water off, the mud flow subsided; for the time being, our house had been saved.

The mission of every government agency, regardless of function, should be to help people. This mission should be understood by every person in the organization. Our crisis showed government operating at its best and its worst.

When we asked the DWP for help, telephone operators were unresponsive: "Is the mud coming into the house? If not, stand in line." Not once did they suggest that we call the Fire Department. We had to figure that out. Based on their performance, I conclude that the mission of the DWP is to keep water in the pipes. Period.

When we asked the Fire Department for help, crews arrived within 10 minutes. A captain and a chief were also on the scene. The Fire Department did not say, "We'll try to send a crew, but our job is fighting fires." They came immediately and stayed at the top and bottom of the hill until the immediate problem had been solved. Their mission, which every firefighter I observed understands, is to help people in emergency situations.

The next day, our councilman's deputy came by to offer assistance, as did a fire chief and a Department of Building and Safety engineer. Our neighbor at the top of the hill came with a crew to prepare the hillside and our house for the next storm. A TV crew that had covered the story came back with sandbags. No one came from the DWP.

DWP personnel should be problem-solvers with the professional skills necessary to help people. Arriving late at the scene, the DWP crew pored over maps that yielded no timely information. In contrast, the firefighting crews were dogged problem-solvers. They searched until they found the water valve. They worked with us to relieve the pressure on our retaining walls caused by the accumulation of mud and water.

Departments must have an information system that enables their staff to help people. The DWP reads every meter before billing, yet the address of the meter and valve in question was not in their system. Without that information, the telephone operators and the men on the scene could not help us. In contrast, our fire station has on the wall a large, clear map of its service area; blue reflectors dot our roadways to signal the location of fire hydrants. Their information systems enable them to carry out their mission.

Departments should continually assess their performance and change if improvement is needed. Someone from the DWP did call for a fact-finding--after we explained what had happened to a friend in high places. If the DWP decides to change its mission and improve its performance, there is a consultant in town whom I highly recommend. Fire Chief Manning, are you available?

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