Councilmember calls hearing on DC water issues

By Dave Statter

WASHINGTON, DC — Councilmember Jim Graham announced Friday he will hold a hearing on September 16 to determine what went wrong at the fire last Wednesday night at the Chain Bridge Road mansion of former DC Board of Education president Peggy Cooper Cafritz. The Ward 1 councilmember is trying to determine why it took the DC Fire & EMS Department almost two hours to establish a reliable water supply to combat the fire.

Mayor Adrian Fenty has asked the fire chief and the DC Water & Sewer Authority (WASA) for reports this week on what happened and how to correct the issues.

If this sounds familiar, it should. In late 2007, Councilmember Graham held a series of hearings looking at the serious water supply issues that became apparent during a four-alarm fire that destroyed an apartment building in Adams Morgan on October 1 of that year. The Fenty administration also ordered an investigative report into the problems that occurred during that fire.

So what happened to the report?

It might be easier to tell you what didn't happen. During the 2007 hearings Jim Graham's Committee on Public Works and the Environment never heard from the man who headed the investigation into what went wrong at the fire on Adams Mill Road. In fact, in a December 10, 2007 hearing shortly after the report was released, the fire department didn't present the report's findings. During that hearing there was no mention or discussion of the report, despite the report's ominous warning that the water system in the Nation's Capital was "questionable".

It appears many of the same issues brought up in the 2007 report came into play at the July 29 fire on Chain Bridge Road.

The report also greatly conflicted with a report released at the same time by the DC Water & Sewer Authority (WASA). During that December 10 hearing WASA's general manager presented some of the findings from its report.

Investigation in 2007
Within hours after the 2007 fire there was finger pointing between Chief Dennis Rubin and officials at the DC Water & Sewer Authority (WASA), including its general manager at the time, Jerry Johnson. The controversy surrounded who was responsible for the inadequate water flow at the scene of the fire. Graham, who witnessed the fire, was also critical of WASA.
The tension carried over into a hearing Graham held three-days later. In that hearing Chief Rubin called the executives who ran WASA "uncooperative".

Immediately after the 2007 fire, the city engaged the services of consultant and former Shreveport, Louisiana fire chief J. Gordon Routley to lead a team looking into the fire and related water problems. The DC Fire & EMS Department says the report cost $12,000.

On November 16, Mayor Adrian Fenty released Routley's 76-page report. On the same day WASA released an executive summary of its own report. The two reports came up with greatly different conclusions.

Routley wrote that both WASA and the fire department had to do a better job of handling the water supply needed for larger fires. The report was critical of WASA's response and the information it provided at the scene of the fire. It also had serious questions about the water system's reliability.

By contrast, WASA's report found that the water system around the Adams Morgan fire met NFPA guidelines. The WASA report, looking at the city's smallest water mains, concluded there was only one occupied portion of the city where water flow was a significant problem.

Council hearings
On December 10, a little more than three-weeks after the reports were released, Councilmember Graham held a hearing on the Adams Morgan fire. Gordon Routley was in Washington and was to be part of the panel testifying before the committee., aware of Routley's scheduled testimony, watched the hearing. There was no appearance by Routley, or any discussion of his report.

At the time, was told by a number of sources there was some sort of an agreement between city officials and WASA that the report would not be part of the hearing. No reason was given other than the parties were now in agreement on how to move forward with many of these difficult issues.

Councilmember Graham says he is no recollection of any agreements and does not recall the Routley report.

During the December 10 hearing there was much discussion over the progress Chief Rubin and WASA's Jerry Johnson made in addressing the problems. Their memorandum of understanding set the stage for jointly funded hydrant inspections by firefighters, along with flow testing and hydrant marking by WASA.

Jerry Johnson concluded his testimony in that hearing by saying, "I want to assure the residence they can go to sleep tonight knowing there is adequate flow of safe water in the mains of the District of Columbia to not only provide them with good wholesome drinking water but to suppress any fire or any other emergency that may occur in the city."

Issues that linger
What Graham, his committee, and the public didn't hear from Routley or anyone else during that 2007 hearing was any discussion about some of the major concerns outlined in the city sponsored report. Many of those same issues were once again evident last Wednesday night.

DC Fire & EMS Department officials familiar with the operations on Chain Bridge Road said that current maps supplied by WASA are not clear about the connections between hydrants and specific water mains. The sources, who are not authorized to speak publicly on this matter, said there was much trial and error trying to find water from a source separate from the inadequate 8-inch main on Chain Bridge Road.

In the 2007 report Routley wrote:

The water system maps that are available to DC Fire & EMS Department are out of date and very difficult to read. It is almost impossible to determine which hydrants are supplied by large mains from these maps.

The sources claim the response by WASA to Wednesday's fire was too little, too late. While no official has been able to supply an exact time the first WASA crew arrived, sources indicate there was a two person crew on the scene about one hour and fifteen minutes after the fire began. The sources indicate the fire department needed a larger and more timely response from WASA employees who were more knowledgeable of the system and the fire department's needs.

After the 2007 fire the report recommended, "A system should be established to ensure that WASA technical expertise is readily available for emergency situations found". Also, according to the report:

The institutional knowledge, from WASA, that is needed to advise DC Fire & EMS Commanders on the details of the water system infrastructure and where to seek additional water when high demand incidents occur was not available on the night the fire occurred. This knowledge is limited to a small number of senior WASA employees.

In addition the report brought out shortcomings in the DC Fire & EMS Department's abilities and procedures for handling larger fires. Despite the report's recommendations that the city have staffed "water supply companies" with 5-inch hose, the department still uses 4-inch hose on six unstaffed water supply engines. A company responds to a firehouse to pick up the water supply unit when a second-alarm is dispatched or when requested by an incident commander. With the exception of the water supply companies, DC's engine companies use 3-inch supply lines.

Chief Rubin told last Thursday he would like to improve the water supply company situation but does not have the money in his budget.

There were many recommendations in the 2007 report that have been acted on, including the hydrant inspections and flow testing. DC Fire and EMS Department spokesman Pete Piringer says the department uses the 2007 report as a guide and has implemented most of its recommendations. But Piringer confirms there are a number of recommendations in the report that may be relevant to Wednesday's fire that haven't been funded or are up to WASA to handle.

Still, the real headline from the 2007 report may come from one of its major findings:

The condition of the water system infrastructure is highly questionable due to its age and condition, as due to deferred maintenance and inspections. Major portions of the underground infrastructure will have to be replaced to upgrade the system. Correction of these problems will require millions of dollars and at least two decades of continual effort.

To this date J. Gordon Routley has not been publicly questioned by Chairman Graham or other councilmembers about his reasons for making that bleak assessment of the water system in the Nation's Capital.

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