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Across D.C., Dozens of Hydrants Are Broken

Firefighters got no water from the hydrant nearest the Georgetown library during a blaze there Monday. The second-closest hydrant also failed.
Firefighters got no water from the hydrant nearest the Georgetown library during a blaze there Monday. The second-closest hydrant also failed. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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By Keith L. Alexander and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dozens of fire hydrants across the District are not in working order, including the two closest to Monday's fire at the D.C. public library in Georgetown.

Fire and union officials say the faulty hydrants often aren't discovered until a fire breaks out, as was the case in Georgetown. Firefighters tried hooking hoses to two hydrants, including one just across the street from the blaze, but were unable to draw water. They wound up using hydrants roughly two blocks from the burning building.

Officials said the broken hydrants slowed the response of some units by a few minutes but did not have a major effect on the blaze, one of two three-alarm fires in the city Monday. All hydrants were working near Eastern Market, the other building that burned.

The city has struggled for years to keep hydrants in good working order, firefighters said. With nearly 9,300 hydrants citywide, keeping up with inspections can be difficult, they said. Some broken hydrants are clearly marked, but only those that have been identified as needing repair. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority oversees the maintenance of the hydrants.

"The way we find out a hydrant isn't working is when we pull up to one and connect to the hydrant," said Dan Dugan, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. "If it's not working, we connect to another one. It just slows us down."

Dugan said the firefighters union has been complaining for years about problems.

No one was hurt in the library fire, but numerous artifacts were damaged or endangered as the flames spread across the 1935 building.

Yesterday, fire officials released a list -- compiled by WASA -- that identified 53 hydrants in need of repair or replacement. They are scattered throughout the city: 15 in Southeast, 12 in Northeast and 26 in Northwest. Some leak; some have defective parts; and some yield no water. WASA officials played down the extent of the problems.

But questions arose about the accuracy of the list. The two locations in Georgetown were not on it.

And many D.C. fire stations keep their own lists of broken hydrants, believing their information is more up-to-date than WASA's. One firehouse, at 1018 13th St. NW, in the heart of downtown, keeps its tally on a board. Yesterday, the board displayed 11 locations -- several of which were not on WASA's list, including one directly in front of the firehouse. That hydrant was damaged two weeks ago, firefighters said, when it was struck by a vehicle.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin, who took command of the department last month, said he is concerned about the problem. "You're always worried about it," he said. "It's a component of fire protection."

Rubin said he plans to work with WASA in checking hydrants and identifying those in need of repair. The initiative, set to begin this month, was in the works when the fires took place this week, he said. Other fire officials said the project will probably take months to complete.


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