NORTH ADAMS — North Adams officials are reviewing the city’s fire hydrant infrastructure, after nonfunctioning hydrants delayed firefighters at recent blazes.
The City Council on Tuesday also will consider an ordinance to create a fire hydrant division within the city’s Department of Public Services.
City officials estimate that about 100 hydrants are nonfunctional, out of more than 600 across the city, although estimates of how many are seized shut or broken vary between the Fire Department and the Department of Public Services.
Broken, frozen and missing hydrants slowed firefighters as they responded to two major fires over the past month, prompting the city to reconsider how it tracks and maintains hydrants.
In late January, firefighters responding to a blaze at Greylock Valley Apartments had to run several hundred feet of line to a nearby hydrant after the closest one did not work.
Two weeks later, firefighters at a structure fire on Veazie Street were forced to try five hydrants.
According to interim Fire Chief Stephen Meranti, one hydrant had been frozen, one was “rusted shut,” a third was missing — it had been removed after being hit by a truck but not recorded in the computer system used by dispatchers, Meranti said — and one did not have enough water pressure.
After the Veazie Street fire, the city began a “complete audit” of the system, which will include bagging out-of-service hydrants, Public Services Commissioner Tim Lescarbeau said at a Public Services Committee meeting Thursday. The full effort is expected to take several weeks.
Meranti told The Eagle that the Fire Department sent city officials a list of hydrant statuses in 2018, noting that 39 percent — more than 200 hydrants — either were seized shut or broken. But, a list maintained by the city showed fewer than 100 out-of-service hydrants.
In addition to finding a new and accurate count, the city’s effort also will involve tracking broken hydrants digitally, said water foreman Colin Todd, rather than by “pen and paper.”
Dispatchers, who tell firefighters where to find nearby hydrants, previously had been working off a computer-aided dispatch system that did not note whether each hydrant was functioning. As many as 40 hydrants now have been marked nonfunctional in the system, Meranti said.
“The communication wasn’t that great,” he said. “We would have a hydrant out of service, and the city would know it, but dispatch wouldn’t know it.”
City Councilor Jason LaForest, who introduced the ordinance to create a fire hydrant division, said he hopes the city can codify the cooperation that exists between departments.
Under the ordinance, a public services employee would be responsible for overseeing issues related to hydrants, including working on twice-annual inspections, communicating changes to dispatchers and publishing records online.
“Unfortunately, the inspection and maintenance of fire hydrants and supporting infrastructure has been neglected, not due to any intentional negligence, but just by the facts of budget and personnel,” LaForest said. “The goal of regulation is to mandate that this critical work is completed in a systematic and timely fashion.”
Councilor Keith Bona, chairperson of the Public Services Committee, pointed out that the city already has taken strides on the long-standing issue. According to Bona, a 2011 report showed that about 300 hydrants across the city were out of order.
But, the city still faces numerous hurdles to make repairs. Parts often end up on back order, while numerous hydrants date back more than 75 years, which means they must be replaced entirely if they break, Todd said. The city has estimated that replacing a hydrant costs about $2,500 to $3,000.
For many, a major sticking point remains staffing: The city once had a full crew to perform water inspections, Meranti said, which are done twice a year in other towns.
Lescarbeau pointed out that there are now just two full-time city employees who work in the city’s Water Department, one dedicated entirely to meter reading, though the department recently hired an additional person who will start in a couple of weeks.
“We’re frugal with our people,” Lescarbeau said. “But, we’re a skeleton crew at best.”
In the meantime, Meranti said, the Fire Department is calling a Clarksburg tanker with several gallons of water to the scene of each fire — just in case.