Bad hydrants often go unnoticed - till they're needed

Water Dept. workers on Feb. 3 fix the hydrant at Mascher and Loudon streets that failed to work the morning of the Jan. 13 fire.
Water Dept. workers on Feb. 3 fix the hydrant at Mascher and Loudon streets that failed to work the morning of the Jan. 13 fire.
Posted: February 15, 2011

WITH FIRE roaring out the windows and doors, the blaze that obliterated Rasheedah Wilson's Feltonville rowhouse last month was the kind that screamed for reinforcements.

Dispatchers sounded the alarm, and more firefighters raced to a hydrant on the next block.

It didn't work.

Even if it had worked, it wouldn't have been enough to save Wilson or her three children, who died in the Jan. 13 blaze, fire officials said.

But you would think that city workers would scramble to fix a faulty hydrant in the wake of an inferno that killed four people.

They didn't.

Philadelphia Water Department workers didn't repair the busted fireplug until Feb. 3 - after the Daily News questioned the agency about it, and three weeks after the death of Wilson, a block captain, and her children in the blaze on Palethorp Street near Loudon.

For Wilson's aunt, Roberta Edwards, who's still paralyzed with grief over the loss of her niece and the children, a fireplug that doesn't function seems unfathomable. Even more incomprehensible, though, is the city's failure to get it working again, she said.

"Why would the hydrant be dry?" Edwards asked. "And why wouldn't they fix it right away?"

Neighbors were equally aghast.

The night of the fire, "the firefighters were standing there with the hose, and nothing was coming out," said Wilson's neighbor Pedro Marquez, 39, whose fire fears kept him from returning home for two weeks after the deaths. "All they could do was just stand there and watch the blaze. Now, every little noise I hear, I'm edgy. I'm wondering what it is."

The city - the first in the country to install public iron fireplugs, according to The Manual of American Water-Works - now has 26,000 fire hydrants. That works out to about one every 500 to 600 feet, Water Department spokeswoman Laura Copeland said.

While the abundance of fireplugs helps firefighters, it can prove challenging for the Water Department, whose workers are charged with their maintenance and repair.

The Water Department currently has 106 reports of out-of-service hydrants, Copeland said.

It has no stated policy on how quickly those repairs must be made. And in many cases, dozens of broken fireplugs have languished for months on the department's "priority backlog" list of out-of-service hydrants. The oldest on the list was reported May 28; 56 reports of broken hydrants, or more than half, are more than two months old.

Firefighters inspect hydrants annually and report those needing repair to the Water Department. But if a car runs over a hydrant, or vandals fill it with stones or trash, or it otherwise becomes inoperable in-between inspections, firefighters won't know until they need to use it.

It would help if the public reported broken hydrants, officials said. But the public rarely does. Water Department workers didn't know about the broken hydrant near Wilson's home, for example, until the Daily News informed them of it, Copeland said.

Of the 106 hydrants now out of service, Copeland stressed that no two are close to each other.

"With over 3,000 miles of water mains, it is a matter of balancing priorities on a daily basis to utilize the available resources as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible," she said, adding that workers repair about 5,000 fireplugs a year.

A fully functioning fireplug probably wouldn't have saved Wilson and her children - Jamar Nobles, 14; Minyan Wilson-Piercy, 12; and Shanai Patterson, 8 - firefighters familiar with the scene said.

Fire was already exploding out the windows when the first engines and ladder trucks pulled up outside Wilson's two-story, redbrick rowhouse, which did not have a working smoke alarm.

"It was just a bad scene," said one firefighter who responded to the 1:30 a.m. blaze.

The inoperable fireplug, which delayed a fourth engine company from joining the firefight by several minutes, was at Mascher and Loudon streets. Three other hydrants near the Wilson home functioned appropriately that night; firefighters from the fourth engine company hooked up to a hose line on one of those.

That's not ideal, because each engine company is supposed to have its own water supply in case a hose line ruptures or some other problem arises, said Mike Kane, an executive board member and trustee of the Philadelphia Firefighters Union Local 22.

But the hydrant was just one of many complications that night. The narrow, one-way block of Palethorp Street where Wilson's family lived was covered with snow and ice, and was difficult for the fire trucks to maneuver, a firefighter on the scene said. Additionally, someone had parked a car in front of the closest hydrant, at Palethorp and Loudon.

And rescue attempts were delayed because a neighbor told the first-responders that "everybody's out," witnesses and fire officials said. As many as seven minutes lapsed before the neighbor clarified that he was referring to his own house, not Wilson's. When firefighters then attempted a rescue, one fireman became disoriented inside and issued a Mayday call, prompting his colleagues to momentarily redirect their attention to him.

Still, an unusable hydrant steals precious time from firefighters when every passing minute counts, Kane said.

"Whenever anybody has a water-supply problem, whether it's first-in or fourth-in, it delays people from doing their job, because now they have to go further to find a water source or hook off somebody else," Kane said.

Fire Department spokesman Capt. Daniel Williams added: "In an ideal world, as a firefighter, if you call and say this hydrant is busted, I guess 48 hours, 72 hours would be a reasonable time to get it repaired."

But, he added: "When the whole world is downsizing and budgets are being cut and what have you, you're forced to work and do efficiencies the best way you can."

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