The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

May 1, 2012

Firefighters to take on task of flushing water hydrants

OTTUMWA — A few water hydrants in Ottumwa failed to work in recent tests, and that presents a safety issue to citizens and firefighters, city officials said.

It’s a general practice in the water industry to flush hydrants at least once a year, said Ottumwa Water Works and Hydro General Manager Mike Heffernan.

“But for the past several years, we’ve only been flushing hydrants on dead ends due to a lack of staff,” Heffernan said.

And in discussions with his employees, that’s how it’s been for a long time, Heffernan said, as he has been general manager for just three years.

One of the issues brought up in Water Works’ meetings with the city was reporting water losses and water usage by the Ottumwa Fire Department.

“When we checked with other utilities, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department ... gave an estimate of their water usage for fires, but for whatever reason they didn’t give an estimate of the water used in hydrant flushing,” Heffernan said.

So City Administrator Joe Helfenberger offered to have Ottumwa firefighters take on the task of hydrant flushing. Water Works purchased some of the equipment the firefighters will need and agreed to a hold harmless agreement between Water Works and the city, which is up for approval at tonight’s City Council meeting.

“We’re hoping they can get at least half flushed this year and the rest next year,” Heffernan said.

Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller said when his firefighters have time, they will open up the hydrants, make sure the parts are working correctly, water is flowing and gauge how much water is coming out of the hydrant.

Then the hydrants will be color-coded so firefighters will know how many gallons per minute the tank puts out.

“We’ve had occasions where a hydrant is opened up and it’s plugged or not working, and this will help take care of that,” Miller said.

But the department has not yet dealt with a failed hydrant while responding to a fire, Miller said, though during their work preparing for the Insurance Services Office (ISO) report last summer, a couple hydrants out of the 20 tested did not work.

The city’s ISO rating jumped from a Class 5 to a Class 4 last year, putting the department in the top 2.6 percent of fire departments in Iowa.

“It’s going to take awhile,” Miller said of exercising the city’s 1,200-plus hydrants. “You’ve got to let it run about 15 minutes, and a lot haven’t been opened for awhile, so the color of the water could be a murky brown, since it’s been sitting there for a while. And sometimes there are foreign objects in the hydrant where if they get into the pump, they could do major damage.”

If firefighters were to respond to a scene where a hydrant had failed, Miller said they would simply go to the next block and use that hydrant.

“The chance of two hydrants in a row not working is pretty slim,” Miller said. “There was a house fire recently where the hydrant worked well but there was water bubbling up from the ground, but that’s just a minor maintenance issue.”

During testing for the ISO report, a few hydrants failed because they were unable to be turned off, Helfenberger said.

“By doing an exercise of the hydrants,  they’ll be able to identify and repair them,” he said. “They’ll be able to repair a hydrant prior to being in a potentially life-threatening fire.”

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