Interview with Director of Public Health Services, Rike Sterrett

As a new regular segment of YOWA’s newsletter, we will be interviewing local Health Directors to inform our readers about health departments throughout our region, the challenges they encounter, advice for our profession, and how YOWA helps them do their job.

The Spring 2024 column features an interview with Rike Sterrett, Director of Public Health Services for the town of Oxford, MA.

What is the community you work for like and roughly how many onsite wastewater systems are built in a given year?
RS: Oxford is more of a rural community, but only 15/20 minutes away from Worcester, with a population of a little over 13,000 people. Most of the Town is on septic with a few areas connected to sewer that is then sent to neighboring communities for treatment. In 2023 we witnessed 57 percolation tests and reviewed a little over 60 septic plans.

What is the staffing configuration at the health department, and how many people work either full-time or part-time with onsite wastewater?
RS: Oxford’s health department consists of a full-time health director and administrative staff. Thanks to DPH’s Public Health Excellence (PHE) grant we also have two full-time regional inspectors that we share with five other communities. Oxford also contracts with a Title 5 inspector on a per diem basis, however, most of the septic work is done by the health director and the two regional inspectors.

What are some of the challenges you find with implementing Title 5 in your community?
RS: There are a variety of challenges when implementing Title 5 in Oxford. One of the biggest is that about a quarter of the town, including our downtown area (which does not have sewer), is in a Zone II nitrogen sensitive area due to public wells. Very little of Oxford is sewered and lot sizes tend to be small. Therefore, it can be a challenge for businesses to come to town or for homeowners to add in law units or add additions because they don’t have the land for a flow increase.

Is there anything an organization like YOWA can provide to enhance the professionalism of the on-site wastewater industry or just in general help you do your job better?  
RS: The Food Code has an annex that provides an explanation for every code section, the science and reasoning behind each item. I would love to see something like this for Title 5. An explanation and the reasoning behind the various code sections. This might help with better understanding the code and how to interpret it, perhaps providing a bit more consistency as well.

What advice would you give someone entering the local public health profession?
RS: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is always something to learn and in local public health we need to be familiar with a lot of different areas, so we won’t know everything. Therefore, it’s more important to know who to contact or reach out to, to ask questions and get advice or guidance. Local public health is a tight knit community that is always willing to help our colleagues, so never hesitate to reach out because chances are, someone has been there before or experienced something similar previously.

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