PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Contractors must get written approval from city officials before shutting off the water to a hydrant from now on.
In fighting the blaze on Tyler Street on Thursday, firefighters were unaware that the contractor hired by the city to upgrade the water line on Plunkett Street had turned off the valve. Firefighters hooked up a hose but no water came out. They, joined by citizens, police officers, and emergency medical technicians, had to run the hose 500 feet down Tyler Street to tap into another hydrant instead.
The delay may not have been too impactful given that the fire was already towering when firefighters arrived but it was a delay nonetheless and one that caused considerable consternation among residents who watched the firefighters hustling from hydrant to hydrant searching for water.
On Friday, Mayor Linda Tyer said any contractors turning off the water to hydrants will need to get written permission from the city first and the details of the shutdown must be included in the bidding process.
"First and foremost, I want to thank all of the emergency responders, as well as members of the community who came together yesterday and jumped right in to help manage a rapidly unfolding situation. It is a powerful testament to our community spirit," said Mayor Tyer.
"We also know that this was a serious incident that raised tremendous concern around hydrants. It's vital that the community is aware of the immediate steps that we're implementing and the comprehensive efforts in place around current hydrant maintenance throughout the city."
The St. Mary's campus is being renovated by CT Management into apartments. The state awarded the city a grant to extend the water line on the south side of Tyler across the street and up Plunkett to provide enough capacity to service the new apartments.
On Plunkett Street, one fire hydrant was replaced and another one was added recently. However, the lines were being pressure tested searching for potential leaks. The valves were turned off and the hydrants were expected to be working properly by next week.
The Fire Department says it never got that notification leading to Thursday's incident with firefighters trying both new hydrants and coming up dry. The Water Department arrived on scene later and turned the hydrant back on and firefighters were able to use that to combat the blaze. It is unclear where the line of communication had failed.
Fire hydrants not working or not accessible isn't foreign to firefighters. Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski said on Thursday that it does happen but typically the cause is freezing weather during the winter and not the water being shut off. The department prefers to know if a hydrant is working or not.
In a joint statement released on Friday announcing the new policy of written permission prior to shutting of a valve, Commissioner of Public Services and Utilities David Turocy, Tyer, and Czerwinski outlined the current practice to keep up with hydrants. For the last month, the city has been doing hydrant flushing throughout the city. Should one not be working or not working up to par, it is flagged as being out of order and reported to the Fire Department.
"We record any problems that are identified and the water department will begin a process to work on those hydrants. Also, we have a multi-phase, multi-year plan in place to manage the replacement of older hydrants," said Turocy.
When a hydrant is flagged as having an issue, the Water Department notifying fire dispatch and the list is shared with all fire stations on a daily basis. The hydrants stay on the list until repaired or replaced.
"Every morning, we get a printout of information, which includes hydrants that are flagged. This allows our guys to make plans for alternate water supply," Czerwinski said.
The city noted that it only tests the ones it owns —which are painted yellow — and that red private hydrants are the responsibility of the owners. Such a private hydrant had malfunctioned during a fire at Lake Onota that ultimately killed three people and neighboring Fire Departments were called for tankers to shuttle water to the scene.
Editor's note: The construction company referenced in an earlier version of this article was listed erroneously and we have removed the sentence with its name. iBerkshires regrets the error.
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