Shut-off hydrants near fire scene prompt policy change in Pittsfield


PITTSFIELD — After a problem that delayed firefighting efforts Thursday, the city has enacted a new policy requiring written communication about the availability of hydrants.

When crews arrived at a fire in a multifamily home on Tyler Street and tried to tap into two nearby hydrants, they found that a contractor working on a nearby project had turned off the water. Going forward, contractors will have to receive written permission before being allowed to turn off a hydrant, a change from the practice of communicating that orally, according to David Turocy, commissioner of public services.

"We didn't think they were shutting it down," he said, referring to the availability of water at two hydrants near the fire. "We want it to be very clear in our documents."

Seven people were displaced from the 662-664 Tyler St. dwelling. The fire, initially spotted on the second-floor porch, tore through the home, burning for hours and melting the siding of a building next door.

After realizing the two hydrants didn't have water, firefighters located other sources and civilians assisted in dragging a hose closer to the fire.

The fire's cause remained unknown Friday. Deputy Fire Chief Matthew Noyes said that even if the inoperative hydrants have been active when firefighters arrived, it might not have changed the amount of damage done.

"It was going really well before they even got there," he said of the fire's progress when the first crews arrived.

Still, confusion about which hydrants around the city are operating fueled concerns of residents. That prompted Mayor Linda Tyer to hold an emergency meeting on the matter with officials Friday.

Afterward, the city released a statement to thank residents who assisted in the fire. The statement also identified steps taken to assure that firefighters have access to working hydrants during fires and detailed what went wrong Thursday.

The Plunkett Street hydrant, one of the closest fixtures to the scene, was turned off by a contractor working on a water main replacement project related to construction of housing units at the former St. Mary the Morning Star Church.

Usually, contractors don't have permission to turn off hydrants on their own but can obtain it verbally through the Water Department, Turocy said.

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That is no longer the city's policy.

"Any future shut-offs must have prior written approval from city officials," Tyer said in the statement. "During yesterday's incident on Tyler Street, a hydrant that was under construction was shut off unbeknownst to city officials."

The city also addressed the status of ongoing maintenance on hydrants, laying out the process by which firefighters know where they can get water in case of an emergency.

From April 22 to May 17, all city-owned yellow hydrants were flushed. Red privately owned hydrants are not included in the annual flushing, the city said in the statement. Water supply proved to be a problem with a single, privately owned hydrant at the Onota Village mobile home park, where a man died in a fire this year.

During the city's routine hydrant maintenance, any fixtures with problems are documented. Reports on hydrants that aren't functioning at full capacity are forwarded to the Fire Department. Those hydrants are then put on a list distributed to all city fire stations each day until the units are repaired or replaced.

The list includes hydrants that have had their water supplies turned off, Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said at the fire scene Thursday.

"Every morning, we get a printout of information, which includes hydrants that are flagged," Czerwinski said in the city's statement. "This allows our guys to make plans for alternate water supply."

Not every hydrant on the list is entirely offline, Czerwinski said.

"What it means is that it's not working to our capacity," he said. "If a hydrant is completely out of service, then it will be bagged or tagged. It's important for the community to know the process has been working."

Turocy said in Friday's statement that there is a multiyear plan in place to replace older hydrants. But just because some hydrants are old and on a list to be replaced doesn't mean they are not functioning, he said.

"What this means is that they are of an older style," he said. "They may be leaking, but that doesn't mean they don't work."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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