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On Saturday afternoon, Aug. 12, Ellery Vaden was in the kitchen of his row house on the 1300 block of Emerald Street NE, about to leave for work, when he noticed smoke coming from his mother’s bedroom upstairs. She was visiting a friend, but the room was full of photographs and mementos of his late father, so Vaden grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran upstairs to investigate. By the time he reached the door, the smoke was already so thick that it knocked him backward. He fled out the front door and called 911.

The first fire truck arrived within minutes. But then a curious thing happened. According to witnesses, when firefighters tried to tap the nearest hydrant, located just a few doors down, nothing came out. As smoke poured out of Vaden’s upstairs windows, a second company of firefighters ran down the block, across 13th Street, and connected the hose to another hydrant about 600 feet away.

That the only midblock fireplug on the street didn’t work came as no surprise to residents. “That there fire hydrant leaked for years,” says Franklin Jefferies, who’s lived on Emerald Street for 26 years. “Everybody called to complain about it. They came and cut it off. It’s been a long time since that hydrant worked.”

Vaden remembers hearing his neighbors talk about the hydrant. “We’d actually thought about it,” he says with a rueful smile, “how if someone’s house here caught on fire, we’d have no water.” Lucky for Vaden, the hydrant misstep didn’t prevent firefighters from successfully extinguishing the fire.

Once the scene had calmed down, another neighbor asked a fire technician to test the midblock plug. No water. The technician told her that it wasn’t uncommon for there to be dead hydrants in the city. The news came as a surprise to Charles Butler—about a month ago, he received a ticket for parking his Kia Sportage too close to the hydrant. “If I’d known it wasn’t working, I’d have gone downtown,” he says.

But according to fire-department spokesperson Alan Etter, that hydrant wasn’t even used in the response to the Vaden fire. Procedurally, firefighters are supposed to lay hose lines in from the corner hydrants, to keep the middle of the street clear for other vehicles such as ambulances. Etter says that firefighters never tried to tap the nearest hydrant to Vaden’s house. “Frankly, we don’t know whether or not [that hydrant] worked,” says Etter. “For purposes for putting out the fire, it wasn’t utilized, because of operations procedures.”

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has sole responsibility for inspecting and maintaining the city’s 8,700 hydrants. (There are also hundreds of private fireplugs in the city, connected to private water mains owned by the federal government and universities.) When WASA finds a hydrant in need of repair, it notifies the fire department’s communications division, which then relays the information over the radio. Firefighters at the affected stations typically write down the location of the hydrant on a chalkboard. The same process occurs when the hydrant comes back online.

Most of the District’s fire-department companies run their own informal inspections, checking nearby hydrants while on nonfire emergency calls, when dispatched to a seldom-visited location, or during return trips to the station. Engine 31’s Captain Tim Redington says he’s constantly scanning hydrants for signs of broken seals or worn threads.

Fire hydrants take a beating. Neighbors try to open them up during summer scorchers, vandals take out their aggression on them, and, most spectacularly, cars run into them. In Palisades, firefighters are vexed by well-meaning citizens who take it upon themselves to repaint them—the paint can harden and make the hydrants difficult to open. “Obviously, we’d like to have all of them working, but it’s not a perfect world,” says Etter. “We understand that when you maintain 8,700 hydrants, some will go out of service. You do the best you can.”

But as Lt. L.A. Matthews of Engine 21 in Adams Morgan says, “Even one [inoperable hydrant] is too many, especially if it’s in front of my house.”

Matthews says that some old-timers at the department have so little faith in the reliability of the city’s fire hydrants that they keep mental maps of swimming pools in their service areas to tap in case a hydrant fails. In addition to providing peace of mind, proximity to fire hydrants has financial benefits. Insurance companies typically vary their rates depending on the home’s distance from a hydrant.

Each of the city’s 33 fire engines carries 500 gallons of water, which is enough to knock down a “fully involved” room. A good thing, since opening up an inoperable fire hydrant appears to be a shared, if infrequent, experience among the city’s firefighters. With one hydrant approximately every 600 feet, there is enough redundancy that one nonfunctioning hydrant shouldn’t derail firefighting efforts, and fire engines typically carry at least 1,600 feet of hose, so reach isn’t a problem. But the longer the hose, the more “friction loss,” which decreases water pressure, so firefighters prefer to keep their layouts short. In practice, they’ll tap the closest hydrant to the fire regardless of whether it’s on a corner or in the middle of the block.

Though it’s rare that a fire rages out of control because of a delay in locating a working hydrant, a broken hydrant can slow down the ground operations. “If it was a small call, we have tanks on the apparatus, and if we exhausted that, we could always get [water] from another company,” says James Mason, a driver with Engine 29 in Palisades. “But if it’s a severe fire, an extreme amount of fire, or in a place we couldn’t get into easily, it could be a problem. Then we’d be scrambling to try to make the thing work.”

WASA currently has two dedicated crews repairing and replacing hydrants on a daily basis, supplemented by six crews that flush the water mains, which involves opening up fire hydrants. In August 2005, the agency embarked on a massive evaluation of the city’s hydrants, hiring an outside contractor to inspect them and make minor repairs. WASA aims to keep at least 99 percent of its hydrants operational.

As for the hydrant on Emerald Street, WASA can’t explain why a resident called to report it was kaput. “We saw that [report], and it just freaked us out,” says spokesperson Michele Quander-Collins. “Naturally, we ran out there and tested it.”

On August 14, a WASA crew investigated the hydrant, along with units at 13th and E, 14th and F, and 16th and E, and found all to be in good order. Quander-Collins could find no record of any of them malfunctioning, although she notes that the address of the Emerald Street hydrant was incorrectly listed as being a few doors down. “We can’t explain why it was reported as not working,” she says. “That’s not something we’d leave as a longstanding problem.”

As of Aug. 23, WASA listed 94 confirmed out-of-service fire hydrants throughout the city, just over one percent of the total hydrant population. “Citywide, that’s probably not a big number, but it’s not anything I’d want to take a chance on, nooo,” says Mason. “That’s too big a number for me, because if you’re already positioned there, it’ll do more damage to the house that you probably could have avoided. Those extra minutes, that’s a few thousand dollars of damage to the house.”

Mason has never tapped a nonworking hydrant in a fire situation, and he’s not eager to. “That’s a bad feeling when you pull up on it expecting to have access to that water and you don’t have it,” he says. “I’m going to break my neck trying to make an adjustment, but I don’t like to have to do that. It’s lives at stake and property at stake.”CP