NI Water tells Utility Week about how its people from all parts of the business have risen to the challenges of coronavirus to keep clean safe water available across the nation.

Working with stricter lockdown conditions, which have been in place for longer than mainland UK, presented challenges for Northern Ireland’s only water company but the teams battled on to maintain services.

The company said workers faced questions from members of the public asking why maintenance was being carried out during lockdown.

Despite that, network repairs – including a number of mainline bursts – were completed by water production line teams, which include water supply, distribution, leakage and maintenance. All of them had to adapt to social distancing, increased water consumption and differing personal, protective equipment requirements.

Brian McCalmont, head of water said: “Our dedicated frontline teams continue to maintain and manage our 19 water treatment works and 27,000km of watermains – to continue to deliver clean fresh water to over 800,000 homes across NI. This has taken huge commitment and dedication from all our water colleagues and particularly those on the frontline.”

He expressed his thanks and appreciation to his colleagues on behalf of the 1.8 million customers.

The supply teams who operate the water treatment works were also forced to adapt their working arrangements to comply with social distancing while responding to technical issues such as variations in raw water quality and the increasing demand for water.

These included Gerry McKenzie and Stephen Pinkerton (pictured) working on caustic pumps at the water treatment works at Killyhevlin.

During April when the weather was unseasonably warm the company noticed an increase in water consumption, which NI Water said made the work of frontline water workers more significant than ever.

As essential to the business was the customer contact teams. NI Water said its level of customer service has not been affected during the outbreak, but its ways of working have altered dramatically. For the teams working in customer service centres, a combination of distancing and homeworking had to be rapidly implemented following a swift evaluation of how the 220 staff spread across the call centre and two control centres.

These centres deal with high priority customer issues such as unplanned interruptions to supply, blocked sewers and flooding. The teams all work in close proximity to match the right people to respond to issues by scheduling and despatching work to field technicians. Business as usual has been completed throughout the changes that took place and levels of support never dropped.

The business found that telemetry controllers would not be able to provide the necessary 24/7 service while working from home, so distancing was added to the office.

NI Water said the combined hard work and participation by all staff allowed agents to be trained, hardware and software to updated and staff to work from home within two weeks of the start of the project.

Although the company could not single out any individuals for special commendation, they said the hard work of the whole company deserved recognition.

Senior water supply manager Maynard Cousley said: “Our hard working and committed frontline team continues to provide an essential service for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Coulsley said appreciation was felt across the whole business and the frontline teams were recognised by the water management team and non-frontline colleagues as well as Department for Infrastructure (DfI) minister Nichola Mallon who added her support for the work the company was carrying out when announcing a two-month deferral for non-domestic customers. Water and sewerage bill increases have been put on hold until July with bills held back so businesses do not face additional burdens.

The planned annual increase in non-household water and sewerage tariff has also been paused but will be reviewed in the autumn.

Mallon said the DfI would be “reprofiling its funding arrangements” with NI Water to allow the company to support business customers through the pandemic.