flint water crisis

Incident Response Planning and the Flint Water Crisis

An incident response plan is a well-developed procedure for identifying and managing an emergency situation. Although having one is at the core of many public administrators’ responsibilities, crafting an effective incident response plan can be quite challenging. One useful way to understand some of the necessary elements of a successful incident response plan is to study the factors that led to a crisis, such as the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan which started in April 2014.

The Flint water crisis can be understood by focusing on three components – responsibility, information gathering, and data analysis. First, city officials misrepresented the nature of corrosion control systems in place in the water supply. Second, the team failed to take adequate tests to ensure the quality of their water, leading to a shortage of data points from which officials could make decisions. Third, two of the results of those water quality tests were thrown out, which resulted in the decision that no action was required by the city.


To establish an effective incident response plan, every level of authority needs to fully understand their responsibilities and needed actions as decision-makers in the event of an emergency. This is critical on several levels as it helps ensure that the team will be familiar with the steps to take to resolve the incident, even when information coming in from the scene may be unclear.

In the Flint, Michigan crisis, the city of Flint was required to have a corrosion plan in place when city officials decided to switch water resources to the Flint River. However, the plan was unclear and ineffective to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials, and when the water pollution became apparent to public administrators and residents, there was no response plan in place.

Gather On-the-Ground Information

It is very difficult to respond to a crisis without having a solid understanding of the situation. This lack of insight can lead to incomplete or inaccurate decisions, so it is key that public administrators gather proper intelligence to inform their decisions.

Gathering data is perhaps one of the areas in which Flint’s response showed its greatest weakness. The plan in place required a collection of 100 samples; however, due to difficulty acquiring these samples, city officials scaled back their efforts to 60 samples. The samples were to be taken from the most at-risk homes, but since the city did not possess records of its lead pipes, it was difficult to identify the most at-risk homes. Furthermore, the samples were gathered from the water on a small stream rather than a maximum-rate flowing source, artificially lowering the results of the tests.

Properly Maintain and Interpret Data

Good decision-making also requires ensuring that all appropriate data is analyzed and integrated into the response to a crisis. In Flint’s case, two samples were removed from the data set. Many feel that these two samples would have pushed the lead content over the level at which the city would have been required to take action. Given the resulting public scrutiny and contamination, it can be difficult to rationalize the removal of these two samples.

As an administrator, it is clear that data is important and should be acknowledged, even when it challenges the prevailing understanding of a situation. Acknowledgment of all data pieces in a crisis, such as the two samples from the Flint case, could potentially allow public administrators to identify crises’ before they occur. In contrast, failure to acknowledge all data can lead to a bad situation getting worse. Thus, public administrators should have a fully developed incident response plan with clear guidelines on how to maintain and interpret data.

The water crisis in Flint is a useful example for public administrators to learn from when handling an emergency. By developing an effective incident response plan that covers areas such as responsibility, information gathering, and data analysis, public administrators can better navigate crises in their communities. The water crisis in Flint is just one example of learning where weaknesses in a plan may exist and how public administrators can evaluate and shape their own plans.

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Expert says Michigan officials changed a Flint lead report to avoid federal action, Michigan Radio

What Went Wrong In Flint, FiveThirtyEight

COMMENTARY: MDEQ Mistakes and Deception Created the Flint Water Crisis, Flintwaterstudy.org

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