Securing backflow preventers from tampering helps protect the nation’s water supply.

Illustrated by: Jim Hunt

For the past 30 years, I have been what many refer to as a “road warrior.” Last year I was on more than 100 flights. If you run the math, that amounts to about two flights every week. However, I don’t fly every week. For example, this week I am on my fifth flight as I write this column.

I will readily admit that since 9/11 it has been no fun to fly. As a well-seasoned road warrior, I know the routine: All of my toiletries are in a baggie. (I am on my third baggie and it looks like it needs replacing again.) My briefcase has a special compartment that allows me to pull my computer out within seconds. I empty everything into my coat pocket, wear loafers, and place both on the belt to be screened.

Like many road warriors, I changed my wallet to a model with a clear panel where I place my driver’s license. Last week one of the security people asked me to remove my license from the visible panel in my wallet. I gave her a disgusted look, but complied.

She handed me my license back and said, “I thought you might read me the riot act like the last guy I asked to remove his license.”

I said, “No, it is not your fault. You are just following the rules.” She thanked me and I was on my way.

What I wanted to say is that we have a bunch of nutty politicians who don’t want to admit that the terrorists have won.

Just look at what we have done and how much it has cost our economy. Many personal freedoms have been taken away. We have window dressing and add to it all the time for us business travelers.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to beat those SOB terrorists as much, or more, than anyone. But I keep thinking what my military genius brother always tells me, “You don’t win a war with defense; you win with an offense.”

He then goes on to identify every military power that switched to a defensive strategy, only to eventually have it lead to their downfall. His statistics are impressive. He claims that if we don’t have the backbone for an offensive approach, we might as well surrender.

Potable Water Treasure

But there are still defensive measures that are offensive at the same time. I am not talking about all of the security nonsense at the airport.

Think of what we treasure more than anything in the plumbing profession. If you said “potable water,” you got it right. Our entire profession is based on providing safe, clean, potable water. We go to the nth degree to protect the water supply against backflow.

A little more than a year ago, I attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., regarding the concerns for a terrorist attack on our drinking water. I cannot write everything that was discussed, but I can tell you that we are doing a great job of protecting the water supply in this country.

Of course, everyone’s concern should be the idiotic, yet sometimes brilliant, mind of the terrorist. Many of these terrorists use low-tech, inexpensive means of terrorizing the public. Just think about 9/11. It only cost the terrorists a few plane tickets and box cutters to fly planes into buildings.

Another low-tech attack could be on our potable water system. While we are prepared, we all need to be more vigilant. Don’t make the water supply an easy target.

Terrorist Alert

After the meeting in Washington, I started thinking more about where our water supply is vulnerable. A low-tech means of infiltrating our water supply can be accomplished with nothing more than a contaminant.

The easiest place to get to our water supply is through the test cocks on a double-check valve assembly or a reduced-pressure principle backflow preventer. Think about it, what does it take to hook up to the test cock? Many times the tester leaves a quick disconnect on the outlet.

As I fly back to Chicago from Southern California, I always marvel at all of the backflow preventers I see in the front yards of buildings. This is something you don’t see in the Midwest. The simple reason is it gets cold in the winter. Yet in many of our southern areas, the climate allows a backflow preventer to be installed outdoors without any freeze protection.

I now start looking at these backflow preventers as potential locations for a terrorist to attack.

Maybe I am paranoid, but isn’t it better to be paranoid in these uncertain times? For years I thought it would be insane to think that anyone would want to kill American civilians. But, it happened. Is it possible they want to attack our water supply?

I have always tried to secure backflow preventers, typically locating them in rooms that are under lock and key. My reason is simply to prevent the unknowing from tampering with the valve. Now, I start to think about how a terrorist could get to a backflow preventer.

Fortunately, there are manufacturers that provide products that can further secure backflow preventers. Outside backflow preventers can be placed in locked enclosures. Test cocks can have locked covers. Of course, indoor backflow preventers can be in secured locations.

We would be remiss if we simply wrote off any idea of a terrorist attacking the potable water system. As an industry, we should be taking an offensive posture and thinking of ways to protect our potable water supply, not only from backflow, but from terrorists.

Sometimes it is the small things that can help win the war. If you have customers with unsecured backflow preventers, mention the idea of securing them. The next time you install a backflow preventer, check out the location. Is it protected from tampering? Is it secure?

Should a terrorist attack, rest assured our country can and will respond. But let’s make it so the terrorists don’t get a first chance to kill or harm anyone before the government can react.

Let’s not let the terrorists win.