Broken Hydrants? How About No Hydrants?
Last week's apartment building fire in Adams Morgan scared the District into a frenzy of promises to do something about the city's archaic water mains, which proved to be inadequate to deliver the water pressure needed to fight a big blaze. Fire fighters had to stretch hose clear into the next neighborhood to reach fire hydrants with decent water pressure.
But despite the focus on problems with broken hydrants in the city, the scariest hydrant story out there is the lack of fire plugs in many of the region's fastest-growing areas, especially in newly developing counties such as Loudoun, Prince William, Calvert, and Charles. (Loudoun is under a drought emergency, with strict rules on water use, by the way.)
As formerly rural areas are suburbanized, fire fighters are often left with the daunting task of attacking any blaze with water they must truck in on tankers, or water from shrinking rural ponds. Earlier this year, in the tragic fire that claimed the 97-year-old Old School in the charming village of Waterford in Loudoun County, the lack of any fire hydrants in the town helped assure that nothing would remain of the historic landmark.
A dozen firetrucks and 80 fire fighters sped to Waterford to help, but water had to be trucked in by six tankers that collected water from the Catoctin Creek half a mile from the fire.
In Loudoun, there are no regulations requiring hydrants, though both insurance companies and fire marshals would like to see governments arrange for hydrants within 500 feet--or at least 1000 feet--of all dwellings. Yet something like a quarter of American families live in suburban or rural areas with no hydrants at all.
It's not that hydrants are new or unknown in far-flung places. Hardly. Indeed, as with any other object, there's even a sub-culture of hydrant aficionados. It's just that it's cheaper to build housing developments with septic systems, and governments in areas of new sprawl have been reluctant to take on the cost of extending hydrant systems or installing dry hydrants.
Obviously, an urban apartment fire is potentially far more dangerous than a rural fire, simply because of the density of life in the city. But plenty of suburban developments feature urban-level density, yet lack fire fighting tools that are considered essential in any city. Will it take a bunch of disasters in the newly-built suburbs to force a rethinking of fire prevention strategies?
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