Nearby Hydrant Wasn't Tapped in Condo Fire

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007

District firefighters battling a major blaze at a condominium building in Adams Morgan this month did not tap into one of two nearby hydrants connected to larger water mains -- a decision that might have given the fire time to intensify.

The hydrant, near 18th Street and Columbia Road NW and about 600 feet from the Avalon condominium building, is connected to a 12-inch water main but was never used to fight the fire, according to a document outlining the fire department's response to the incident.

Just how much water was available to fight the Oct. 1 fire has been a source of dispute between the city's fire department and its water authority. No one was seriously hurt, but dozens were left homeless by the fire, which took several hours to bring under control and destroyed the roof and top floor of the four-story, 30-unit building in the 2600 block of Adams Mill Road NW. The building remains closed.

Firefighters decided not to use the Columbia Road hydrant because they were drawing water from another one directly across 18th Street, Assistant Fire Chief Lawrence Schultz said. An assumption was made that the two hydrants were connected to the same main and that hooking up both would lessen water flow, he said.

Maps of the water system show the hydrants are connected to separate mains.

D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin has said that firefighters searched in vain in the surrounding area for hydrants that could produce large amounts of water, but that the six-inch mains that supply much of the water to the neighborhood quickly dried up. He said that low water pressure forced firefighters to resort to laying thousands of feet of hose to two hydrants connected to 20-inch water mains in Woodley Park, which delayed efforts to contain the fire.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the quasi-independent agency that runs the city's water system, has a 20-year plan to replace aging and undersize mains, but officials, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), have said the Adams Morgan fire proved the pace is too slow and puts parts of the city at risk.

WASA officials are reviewing the plan. But they dispute Rubin's claim that there wasn't enough water available in Adams Morgan. Two days after the fire, WASA tested the two hydrants on Columbia Road, and both put out at least 3,500 gallons a minute, said Jerry N. Johnson, WASA's general manager.

Fire department officials described that flow level as adequate to fight the fire, Johnson said.

Early Thursday morning, Rubin and a group of independent consultants conducted another set of tests of the water flow from hydrants in the area of the fire, including the hydrant that was not tapped on Columbia Road. The results will be available next week, said Kenneth L. Crosswhite, a fire department spokesman.

The fire highlighted other issues between the two agencies.

The fire department and WASA have been negotiating for months over a document that would govern which agency tests and maintains hydrants. Rubin pushed for an agreement after a fire at the Georgetown public library exposed problems with faulty hydrants.

Rubin also wants WASA to color-code hydrants according to water flow, so firefighters can quickly determine which hydrants to use.

The document remains unsigned.

"I've worked here for 23 years. I couldn't take you to a hydrant in the city and tell you what size mains are attached," Schultz said.

Right now, the only way to know how much water a hydrant might produce is to consult paper maps from WASA, which fire department officials complain are outdated and difficult to read.

The water main map in the fire department's mobile command center, an RV that top officials use as a base during large fires, is dated April 1985.

Johnson said his agency has worked with the fire department and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to identify and record information about each hydrant in the city on an electronic map. But the information is not yet available to firefighters in the field, D.C. fire officials said.

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