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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?

By Marc Fisher |  October 9, 2007; 7:44 AM ET
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for a modern, water effecient solution to antiquated fire hydrants.

Posted by: LSW | October 9, 2007 8:33 AM

Marc, you once again display an amazing cluelessness. Did you even investigate how much it costs to run a 6" water main out to the middle of nowhere where many of these new developments are built? Rather than pay for the pipes, developers and the homeowners try to have the costs socialized across all of the water utility's customers. So these homeowners have made the decision to leave in a house without hydrant service and have saved money as a result. But in your typical liberal fashion, rather than ask these people to accept responsibility for their own decisions, you now want society as a whole to bail them out from their choices.

Posted by: AlvinT | October 9, 2007 9:53 AM

Why has the hydrant at Nebraska and Albermarle, NW, been broken and gushing water for more than a month now?

Posted by: Amy Freeman | October 9, 2007 10:15 AM

But in your typical liberal fashion, rather than ask these people to accept responsibility for their own decisions, you now want society as a whole to bail them out from their choices.

Posted by: AlvinT | October 9, 2007 09:53 AM

Yes these people should be responsible for their decisions so if you live in a circumstance like this which makes fighting fires harder they should pay more for the fire fighting protections and for putting the fighters at more risk. So if you have a dense development but not the recommend number of hydrants (you didn't want to pay up front - cheaper housing)Maybe higher taxes?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2007 10:32 AM

There are other partial solutions - build underground cisterns with a dry hydrant connection; have connectors or access to swimming pool water (good for at least a few minutes of pumper activity); and set up the storm water retention ponds to be bigger and to not go dry between rainfalls.

Posted by: me | October 9, 2007 11:26 AM

"Maybe higher taxes?"

We certainly pay higher insurance rates, and rightfully so.

Posted by: cb | October 9, 2007 12:46 PM

Actually Marc, and no offense to anyone who lives in these communities, but I wouldn't say the prospect of one house with one family burning down is the "scariest story" out there when apartment buildings with 30 families are burning down. To give one more weight as "the scariest" is to minimize the other and both are extremely scary and frankly unacceptable situations.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | October 9, 2007 1:40 PM

In the 1980s I lived in a Massachusetts town that was installing sewers in a large section of town that had never had them before. The town paid for the project by assessing each homeowner a one-time "betterment" fee. I'm not sure how it was calculated, but I think it had something to do with the size of the house and the lot frontage, and it averaged about $2500 per home.

It was called a "betterment" fee because it acknowledged that the homeowners' property values were going to go up as a result of being connected to the municipal sewer system, which (at least in New England) is considered "better" than individually maintained septic systems.

Maybe the same rationale could be used to pay for hydrant systems down here, at least if the culture changes so that a new subdivision with hydrants is considered "better" than one without.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | October 9, 2007 2:05 PM

OK, I agree that the expense of running water and sewer lines, and the resulting lack of hyrants, are good examples of the hidden costs in making big cheap suburban sprawl houses (the cost of postal delivery is another one) but... there's a bit of a disconnect here trying to tie togther the lack of hydrants that results from cheap development, and the loss of a 97-year old building. Wouldn't there be the same difficulty in fighting a fire in the Old School if there hadn't been sprawling development around? I mean, hadn't it stood there for 97 years without any hydrants around?

Posted by: thm | October 9, 2007 2:07 PM

Mark, don't you mean well not septic systems? after all hydrants use the incoming water, not the outgoing.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2007 2:41 PM

Mark, thanks for the link to the dry well info. I will pass that on to my neighbors too.

Not having city water (& hydrants) is why I had a holding tank installed for my sprinkler system. The local fire dept. guys tell me my house is the least of their worries, because they don't expect a fire to last more than 30-45 seconds.

That news was very reassuring to me and worth hundreds in insurance cost reductions. In fact, the reduced insurance costs will pay for the sprinkler system in 9 years ... that means I break even in 2009.

Posted by: SoMD | October 9, 2007 2:47 PM

One more reason why decisions to move out to "lower cost" Loudoun over the past 10-15 years is not looking that smart after all. Not enough schools to satisfy the demand results in...higher taxes. Not enough roads to satisfy the demand results in...higher taxes. Part-time fire department for a rapidly expanding population results in...higher taxes.

Sure, it is pretty and the homes are newer, but it did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that someday the bill would come due for all of the infrastructure improvements as Loudoun moved from sleepy rural farm community to high-powered exurb.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | October 9, 2007 3:14 PM

In addition to the costs, Marc is apparently unaware of another problem with building long spurs out to new developments: water quality. In order to have sufficient pressure at the hydrants, you need a decent sized water main, which entails a relatively large volume of water. If the development doesn't turnover that water volume on a frequent enough basis, then the quality of that water degrades. Specifically, as the disinfectant is used up, more microbial growth will occur, thus increasing the likelihood of certain waterborne illnesses. But hey, then Marc could write a column about the region's utilities are making their customers sick.

Posted by: AlvinT | October 9, 2007 5:46 PM

My neighbors propane tank exploded on thier deck. Catching their deck on fire. Within a 5 mile radius of my house off Braddock Rd near CLifton Rd are 3 firehouses CLifton, Centerville and new one on Rt 29 just east of the parkway. Response time over 12 minutes. My sis and bro are Fairfax County volunteers firefighters and there were no major or minor incidents to slow down response time.
My neighbors and I are lucky the night was dead calm or all 5 of our townhouses would have been destroyed.

Another concern in the outlying counties is after 5pm and on weekends its all volunteer. I thought living in Fairfax would be a benefit with 24hr 7 day a week professional firefighters it isnt. The fools were too busy watching the Skins preseason game that night. Hey FX Fire Chief care to respond punk!

Posted by: Scarier is the Response Times | October 10, 2007 7:17 AM

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