Nearly 100 city fire hydrants were out of service as recently as Aug. 23, according to D.C. Water and Sewer Authority records. That represents more than 1 percent of the 8,700 city-owned hydrants.
One of them was involved in a fire two weeks ago in Stanton Park. On the afternoon of Aug. 12, firefighters responded to an electrical blaze on the 1300 block of Emerald Street NE. According to witnesses, when firefighters tried to tap the nearest fire hydrant, located just a few doors down, nothing came out. 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 mid-block fire hydrant on the street didn’t work came as no surprise to residents. Of the five hydrants in the vicinity, Lacey Bigelow, a resident since 1971, says he knew of only one that worked. “We used to joke that if there’s a fire, it’s gonna be hell,” he says.
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 hydrant. No water. The technician told her that it wasn’t uncommon for there to be dead hydrants in the city.
According to fire department spokesperson Alan Etter, WASA has sole responsibility of inspecting and maintaining the city’s hydrants. When WASA finds a hydrant in need or 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 then the hydrant comes back online.
“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 Company 21 in Adams Morgan says, “Even one [inoperable hydrant] is too many, especially if it’s in front of my house.”
WASA currently has a 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. Last August, the agency embarked on a massive evaluation of the city’s hydrants, hiring an outside contractor to inspect and make minor repairs. The goal is to maintain over 99 percent operational.
After the fire, a WASA crew investigated the Emerald Street hydrant, along with hydrants at 13th and E, 14th and F, and 16th and E, and found all to be in good order. Spokesperson Michele Quander-Collins says she could find no record of any of them malfunctioning. “I just don’t know what they’re talking about,” she says. “We cannot find any inoperable hydrants in that area. We can’t explain why it was reported as not working. We didn’t get a call from fire department or a citizen, which is usually how we find out about these things. That’s not something we’d leave as a longstanding problem.”
Look for a detailed investigation into the city’s broken hydrants in next week’s City Paper.