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Dispute Over D.C. Hydrants Is Settled

A disagreement arose between the District's fire department and water authority about who is responsible for testing and maintaining fire hydrants after a blaze destroyed the Georgetown public library branch in April.
A disagreement arose between the District's fire department and water authority about who is responsible for testing and maintaining fire hydrants after a blaze destroyed the Georgetown public library branch in April. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

The District's fire department and water authority have called a truce in a fight over who is responsible for testing the city's aging fire hydrants, six months after a blaze in Georgetown exposed widespread problems.

Even after it was revealed that up to a third of the city's 10,000 hydrants were in disrepair, officials at the two agencies could not agree on who was in charge of inspecting them. Finger-pointing continued for months until an agreement was reached Thursday -- two days after the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation calling for action.

The fire department agreed to test the hydrants every six months and split the cost with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, a quasi-independent agency. WASA will be in charge of repairing them.

WASA repaired hundreds of hydrants in recent months after the fire department volunteered to inspect them. WASA officials insisted that they have dealt effectively with the problem, saying the agency knows of only 36 hydrants now out of service.

Tensions grew after a fire April 30 at the Georgetown public library. The two hydrants closest to the scene did not work, and firefighters had to use hydrants about two blocks away.

Dennis L. Rubin, who took over the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department that month, warned repeatedly after the Georgetown fire that the faulty hydrants were a serious risk. He complained that broken hydrants were not marked, forcing firefighters to play "Russian roulette" during emergencies.

From the start, both sides agreed that WASA was in charge of maintaining the hydrants. But fire officials said the testing was WASA's job. The fire department was willing to take it on, Rubin and others said, but wanted WASA to share in the cost.

Yesterday, Rubin was much more conciliatory toward WASA and its general manager, Jerry N. Johnson. The two men appeared alongside Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to announce their deal.

"I'm pleased to be able to tell you about this partnership," Rubin said, with Johnson quickly agreeing.

Thirteen firefighters will be assigned to testing hydrants in addition to performing their regular duties. The fire department will mark hydrants that do not work or need repair. WASA will pay about half of the $500,000 annual cost of the testing, Rubin said.

Within two years, WASA will "flow test" the hydrants and mark them with color-coded bands to indicate water pressure. The agency also will upgrade 3,500 out-of-date hydrants within five years as part of a $26 million initiative.

"This removes confusion from the process," Fenty said.

Testing has been completed for this year and will resume in April, fire officials said. Hydrants are not tested in winter because of the potential for gushing water to freeze and cause slippery road conditions.

"This agreement with WASA gives us a greater capability to fulfill our mission," Rubin said.

The pact does not address another recent point of contention between the two agencies: aging water mains. Rubin criticized WASA officials after a fire Oct. 1 at a four-story condominium building in Adams Morgan, saying firefighters had trouble getting enough water to extinguish the blaze. Fire officials said they had to lay thousands of feet of hose to reach hydrants with larger mains that had the water pressure needed to control the flames.

WASA countered that firefighters had an adequate water main nearby but did not hook up to it. It remains unclear who is right. Both agencies have used outside experts to conduct incident reports. Rubin has backed off a bit in his criticism of WASA and said more will become known by Friday, when he receives a draft report on the episode.

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