Doubts Remain About Reliability of D.C. Hydrants

By Theola Labbe-DeBose and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 25, 2009

As many as 6,500 of the District's 9,000 public fire hydrants have not been tested for water flow, leaving firefighters unsure of how much water they will find when they arrive at an emergency and hook up their hoses.

Serious blazes in Georgetown and Adams Morgan in 2007 prompted officials to promise that they would make speedy fixes to the water system and set up a hydrant upgrade and repair program. But because of limited funding, officials said, only 25 percent of the city's hydrants have been tested. In addition, officials acknowledge that confusion remains about the size and quality of the pipes under the hydrants and their ability to provide enough water to put out a major fire.

In July, water-flow problems on Chain Bridge Road NW hampered efforts to fight the fire that destroyed the home of former school board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz, renewing questions about the level of uncertainty firefighters face during a major blaze. Fire officials say they often find hydrants fed by eight-inch mains that can't deliver enough flow. That forces them to look for larger mains.

"Why was this yet another fire where initially the report was that there wasn't enough water?" said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who was scheduled to chair a hearing Friday about hydrants and water supply for fighting fires.

"The most important thing is that there are working hydrants. The second important thing is that [the fire department] have access to information about the water system," Mendelson said.

Officials with the D.C. Water and Sewer and Authority said the pace at which they are testing and replacing hydrants -- 2,400 in just two years -- is impressive. Fire officials said the situation is much better than it was in 2007, when broken hydrants were scattered throughout the city and no one was keeping track.

"We would like information on all the hydrants. Just having water, we're happy with that," said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Under an agreement reached in 2007, the fire department and WASA, a quasi-independent utility, have worked to improve hydrant maintenance.

Fire officials inspect hydrants twice a year and tag the broken ones. WASA replaces or upgrades a tagged hydrant, does a flow test and puts a red, yellow, orange or blue band on the hydrant to inform firefighters of the level of flow. Both agencies receive hourly updates on inspections and flow tests through an electronic database.

WASA has spent nearly $32 million on the program and increased the number of hydrant repair crews from two to six. But WASA's interim general manager, Avis Marie Russell, told a council committee last week that it would take several years to replace the rest of the city's hydrants and that the work was "dependent on District funding."

The unfinished flow testing was a factor in the fire department's difficulties in putting out the fire at Cafritz's home. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward1), who chaired a hearing last week, asked why firefighters had to wait 40 minutes for someone from WASA to arrive and direct them to larger water mains.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin replied: "By not having the hydrants completely marked yet -- and I know we're working hard to get that done -- that would have been the reason why we weren't able to connect to hydrants or to immediately know where fire hydrant flow availability was in the area."

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