Fire Officials to Get Refresher on Water System

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Top commanders from the D.C. fire department will attend training sessions next month on the city's water system, a refresher course designed to give them more information about water flow so they can quickly make decisions about water access during a major blaze.

The sessions, held by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, were discussed at a D.C. Council hearing Friday about hydrants and water pressure, the second in two weeks concerning the four-alarm blaze on Chain Bridge Road NW on July 29 that destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Firefighters faced water pressure problems in that blaze, and the difficulties revealed a new weakness in the system for informing them about the locations of high-flow hydrants on large mains, key data when fighting a major fire.

The sessions, which will start Oct. 8 and include more than 40 senior staff members, will give an overview of the water system and how to read WASA's water maps, as well as specific information about locations, such as Chain Bridge Road, where special factors such as narrow streets and hilly terrain could affect firefighting.

"We have a basic understanding of how our water system works, but this will help us to refine our knowledge and help us be efficient in our fire response," said D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin. "This is just the first stop; as upgrades and changes are made to the system, our training would go on."

The cause of the Chain Bridge fire remains under investigation, but a report by the fire marshal is in its "final phases," Rubin said, and the cause will probably be "accidental, undetermined."

"We're working hard to run final tests to eliminate other causes," Rubin said.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who oversees the fire department, led the Public Safety Committee hearing. In his opening statement, he criticized fire department leadership as a factor in the difficulties at the Chain Bridge Road blaze. Mendelson said the department has disregarded water maps for years and did not have a coordinated plan for attacking the fire -- an echo of problems it had fighting a blaze at an Adams Morgan condominium in 2007.

"Why is history repeating itself?" Mendelson asked, adding that it should not have taken two years for the fire department and WASA to schedule training on how to read WASA's maps. Rubin pledged that the department was working on that issue.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she had little confidence that the fire department and WASA could solve the problem themselves and asked Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to appoint a senior staff member to give the two agencies deadlines.

"We need someone to take control and make sure we have a comprehensive plan," Cheh said. "Until that happens, I have no confidence that this will be done properly or in a timely manner."

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said the mayor's office was drafting a letter Friday afternoon in response.

The replacement and testing of city hydrants remains an issue. Of the 9,000 public hydrants, about 25 percent have been replaced and tested, giving firefighters a clear indication of the kind of flow to expect in an emergency.

WASA officials said Friday that they have replaced and tested 2,400 hydrants in the past two years, and that it would take five years to complete the rest of the system, at a cost of $29.5 million.

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