NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — About one out of every five of the city's fire hydrants are nonfunctional, the City Council was told on Tuesday.
The city has 631 fire hydrants of which about 500 are fully functional. Around 100 need to be fully replaced and another 30 can be repaired, at this point.
"I think we all saw the the challenges with hydrants put front and center for all of us, was it two weeks ago just a little more than two weeks ago, with the fire out on Greylock Avenue which brought this brought this issue into stark relief," said Mayor Thomas Bernard. "And it's an issue that addresses the safety of our community, which is something that we all share our responsibility for, something I know we all take seriously."
The mayor was referring to the fire on Jan. 29 at the Greylock Valley Apartments that destroyed one unit and damaged others. The fire affected about nine people in the apartment block operated by the North Adams Housing Authority.
The hydrant directly across from the apartment block was broken and the first crew on the scene had to run 300 feet of line from the next hydrant.
The Housing Authority's Executive Director Jennifer Hohn said four of the five hydrants at the Greylock Apartments had been out of service and one was on its "last leg." The agency used $10,176.85 in federal funds to purchase five new hydrants but only one has been installed, according to firefighters, because couplings are on back order.
The exact number of hydrants out of service or in some disrepair isn't clear and the city and the North Adams Association of Firefighters Local 1781's numbers don't completely jive. The union, in a letter to councilors, said a survey had been done in 2018 at the direction of Fire Chief Stephen Meranti following an incident at a garage fire.
"The results of the survey was astounding to say the least. Over half of the city's hydrants had some sort of deficiency," the union stated. "This could range from being completely out of service, inaccessible, or simply having caps that could not be removed."
Firefighters used a food-safe grease on the caps to ensure they could be reopened.
The hydrant issue had been reviewed by the Public Safety Committee on Monday. Councilor Jason LaForest, chairman of the committee, read the firefighters union letter, dated Feb. 3, regarding the hydrants into the record at the committee and at the City Council on Tuesday night.
"At the completion of the survey, Chief Meranti was promised the replacement plan of 10 hydrants per year. This promise has not been kept," LaForest read. "The members of Local 1781 depend on this system to serve the citizens of North Adams."
The city has been trying to address the hydrant system for a decade. A study of the entire water system presented in 2011 by Tighe & Bond estimated that $20 million would be need to upgrade the system, including 200 hydrants.
Commissioner of Public Services Timothy Lescarbeau said the number was probably closer to 300 when he took over.
"We've tackled quite a few, we've been able to repair, we still have 100 that need to be replaced," he said at Tuesday's council meeting. "That's a quarter of a million dollars ... if we install them ourselves. If we had an outside contractor do it, you could double that number, or possibly more. But I mean, that's where we are, we have a one-person Water Department. And, you know, not making excuses, it's just a real reality that we have to deal with."
The mayor said 40 hydrants have been purchased and 36 installed, and repairs have been ongoing. The replacement of hydrants is part of a long-term capital projection that has included the dam study, replacement of the water treatment plant's filtration system and software, and propane backup system, he said.
"I know that we're in the process of doing a software review to improve the management and tracking of our hydrants, for our water system, our gates," Bernard said. "There's an underlying issue to to this, and it's one we've talked about in the past ... is aligning not only our budget, but our capital priorities and our capital outlay."
Options include looking to the Community Compact and continued use of Community Development Block Grant funds on street infrastructure that would include hydrants, although CDBG funds are limited to certain areas.
Lescarbeau, in response to questions, said most of the hydrants in those areas were done in the 1990s so are still mostly functioning.
"The problem with that type of funding, it's only good for the lower-income neighborhoods," he said. "So there's a lot of areas that we don't qualify for."
Both Lescarbeau and Meranti said the biggest obstacle to maintaining the system is the lack of manpower.
"I think replacing hydrants is a great idea. It's going to help us out tremendously. But the the real problem here is there is no preventative maintenance on this system," said Meranti. "It's gone downhill."
"When I started in 1987, there were seven people in the Water Department, there was a complete crew that maintained the hydrants. Other communities have a Water Department, we do not have a Water Department. We have one guy, he's way overwhelmed with the work that's required here.
"We can't cut people anymore. We need people in a Water Department down here. And that's all I got to say about that."
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