Weak Hydrants Pose Health, Safety Hazard

Contributed by: Ann Hinch on 10/27/2006

Approximately a third of the fire hydrants in and around Lenoir City deliver inadequate pressure to directly support fire hoses - but only two are shut down completely, according to LCUB Water Supervisor Greg Jones.

"The fire hydrants are not dead," he said last week. "You just cannot hook a pumper truck up to them." He explained tanks which feed hoses can still be connected to them.

Broadway residents Rusty and Nancy Loveday and some other interested citizens attended Lenoir City council's Oct. 23 meeting. Mayor Matt Brookshire gave those in attendance three minutes each to address their concerns to council, and Rusty Loveday brought up allegedly dead hydrants listed the week before on former county commissioner Van Shaver's blog website ( www.vanshaver.com).

"Don't you think since my parents have paid taxes since 1968, their fireplug ought to work?" he asked.

City attorney Shannon Littleton, who is also assistant general manager for LCUB (Lenoir City Utilities Board), said it is working up a master plan replace old water lines and that there are "other ways to fight a fire" besides hooking a hose directly to a hydrant.

Under Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation Division of Water Supply rules, "all water mains designed for fire protection must be six inches or larger and be able to provide 500 gallons per minute (gpm) with 20 pounds per square inch (psi) residual pressure."

Lenoir City Fire Chief Richard Martin said this rule is partly in place to prevent contamination, since there is a possibility of suction backflow into a hydrant - and the water line - that cannot maintain a certain, steady pressure.

"Any fire truck hooking to a substandard hydrant runs the risk of contamination of the water supply," he explained. Too, an underperforming hydrant cannot directly support the number of hoses needed to douse a larger fire.

The problem with many of these hydrants, Jones and LCUB General Manager Fred Nelson said, is they are fed by pipes which are old and either undersized or corroded. (On a list of roughly 250 hydrants provided by LCUB last week, 80 showed test readings under either 500 gpm or 20 psi, or both; another 11 were blank or incomplete to judge.)

Nelson added rapid city growth has outpaced LCUB's financial replacement ability, and is why LCUB is working with engineering firm Lamar Dunn & Associates to complete a master plan sometime in November, as well as applying for grants. He said new subdivisions' larger water lines are, in accordance with city ordinances, financed by those developers.

Hydrant ownership seems convoluted. Loveday criticized council for building a new swimming pool and budgeting $40,000 for next year's Centennial celebration while neglecting low-pressure hydrants.

"If my kid needed shoes, I wouldn't go out and throw someone a birthday party," he said.

Littleton said city tax money paid for the pool, while LCUB has to finance water line improvements from charges to rate-payers. To go any faster, LCUB would have to raise rates, to which Loveday said, "I'd gladly pay for it, rather than have my house burn down."

Jones explained the city is ultimately responsible for the hydrants, though it pays LCUB to perform maintenance; this includes opening the plugs and checking valves, grease and stems. "We just provide potable water," he said.

He added two hydrants are out of commission because their use poses a safety hazard for firefighters: one at Broadway and Grand and another on Nelson Street, which will have to be replaced on a weekend to minimize water loss to surrounding industries. A third at Broadway and Rose was replaced last week.

Shaver said on the hydrant list he received, several had the word "dead" written next to them. "Sure sounds to me like 'dead' means they don't work," he explained, adding his curiosity was originally piqued by trash bags around two unusable hydrants.

"I don't know who wrote (dead)," Nelson said. Neither does Martin.

A former firefighter, Nelson admitted refilling a tanker to hose a fire takes more time than pumping the hydrant directly and that "minutes matter" in a blaze. "We're really trying to do some stuff that should've been done when I got here in 1966 (as a non-managerial employee)," he said of replacing old pipes via a master plan.

"What we're trying to do is not go out here and tie a water line next to the high school, and then the area gets built up ... and it needs to be replaced," he explained.