Not in Service - fire hydrants in North Adams (copy)

A fire hydrant on River Street in North Adams is covered with an orange plastic bag printed with the words "Not in service." Mayor Tom Bernard says the city will have to improve its fire hydrant-management procedures.

NORTH ADAMS — When Mayor Tom Bernard first pledged to address the city’s nonfunctional fire hydrants, he told residents that North Adams would need “short-, medium- and long-term action.”

Now, the city is moving toward those solutions.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, councilors advanced a $300,000 loan to repair and replace 50 to 60 hydrants. The city will use that money to put a contract out to bid. This winter, nonfunctioning hydrants delayed firefighters at blazes in the city.

A previous identical vote, which also passed unanimously this month, had to be repeated for technical reasons. According to City Council President Paul Hopkins, Bernard has assured councilors that work will continue even as the borrowing order formally is moved to a second reading.

The council also heard a proposal from Councilor Lisa Blackmer to amend city ordinances to include “construction, alteration, repair and care of public fire hydrants” under the duties of the Public Services Commissioner.

Councilors present unanimously voted to approve the ordinance change and move it to a second reading. Councilor Jason LaForest was not in attendance.

With the borrowing and ordinance change approved, Blackmer and Bernard told The Eagle that the responsibility of solving the hydrant problems now should shift from the council and back to city staff, including the water and fire departments.

“The solution to the hydrants is really an administrative, management function as far as I’m concerned,” Blackmer said. “People want to know, who do they report to [on hydrants]? Who’s responsible? Well, you look at the manuals, policies, contracts, and a lot of that’s actually already in there.”

A previous proposed ordinance change would have set specific hydrant-reporting timelines and codified twice-yearly inspections, but councilors and city officials had expressed concerns that the ordinance would have impacted job descriptions and collective bargaining, and the proposal was voted down this month.

The one-line alteration approved Tuesday, Blackmer said, will help relieve public anxiety about hydrant management and codify the responsibility, without adding unnecessary legislation.

“It’s about leadership, and it’s a matter of the working relationships between department heads,” she said.

In an interview with The Eagle before the meeting, Bernard stressed that the city will have to come up with more effective ways to manage hydrants. The goal is to ensure that the city performs regular yearly inspections and continues to replace several old and broken hydrants each year, even after the major overhaul.

He also said that part of the solution will require building more robust procedures to ensure communication between the water and fire departments so that department heads share information about problem hydrants.

“This is the internal process that needs to be improved,” he said. “It has been relayed to me that there are times when there’s information communicated that doesn’t make it into the [digital hydrant] system [used by dispatchers and other city staff]. We’ve got to make sure there’s a clear procedure and clear accountability.”

Bernard added that a complete solution would include expanding the Water Department. Until recently, the city had just one full-time employee focused on the water system. A recent hire has increased the department’s capacity, but Bernard suggested that at least one more position, if not additional hires, would be necessary.

“It depends on funding,” he said. “But, I think, over a couple years, it’s got to get to a level that’s able to support and sustain the work.”

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 510-207-2535.