More D.C. Hydrants May Be Broken

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said yesterday that at least 25 percent of the city's 9,000 fire hydrants could require replacement or immediate repairs.

Testifying before a D.C. Council committee, Rubin gave a bleaker picture than that provided last week by the city's fire union, which estimated that 10 percent of the hydrants don't work. Rubin said that those hydrants must be replaced and that an additional 15 percent are in such bad shape they must be fixed immediately.

"It's like a sucker punch when firefighters are fighting a fire and go to a hydrant that doesn't work," Rubin said.

The broken hydrants are a safety hazard and an embarrassment, said Rubin, who took office last month after leading fire departments in Atlanta and other cities. Although firefighters typically can draw water from other nearby hydrants during a blaze, they have said that time is wasted trying to figure out which ones work, as was the case in a recent fire at the Georgetown public library.

Rubin said the conditions vary from street to street -- in some neighborhoods, he said, up to 16 percent of the hydrants are broken, and many more need repairs because of poor water flow and other problems.

The chief's testimony had a much more urgent tone than that provided by the head of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the quasi-independent agency charged with maintaining the hydrants.

WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson stuck to his contention that only a fraction of hydrants are out of service, saying that WASA knew of only 29 as of Monday.

The dueling views came at a hearing of the council's public safety and judiciary committee, in which lawmakers quizzed officials from the fire department and WASA about faulty hydrants.

"I think this whole thing is disturbing," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), head of the committee. "It feels like catch-up. Neither agency has been as aggressive as they should."

Because firefighters are the primary users of the hydrants, they initiated systematic testing of them in 2005 and started working with WASA on the process. They began a new round of inspections this month.

Rubin based his estimates on fire department inspections. One round of recent tests, for example, found that 23 of 256 hydrants weren't working in neighborhoods across the District.

The department has tested about 1,300 hydrants and plans to inspect all of them by the end of the year, officials said. WASA predicted that the tests will be done by Labor Day, saying that the agency is devoting more staff to the testing.

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