Officials worried about Pa. fire hydrants

Responder says he had to let hydrant run for about 15 seconds to clear the line

By Craig K. Paskoski
The Evening Sun

HANOVER, Pa. — Several East Berlin Borough Council members are demanding the borough's sewer and water authority take action to improve the fire hydrant system in town after reports of leaking and broken hydrants and mud in the lines.

"That's a lawsuit waiting to happen," said Councilman Charles Phillips, who is a member of Liberty Fire Co. No. 1 in East Berlin. "One of these days, somebody's house is going to burn down."

Other officials say the hydrant situation is not that dire and is being addressed.

"We are concerned about it, but it's not like it's every hydrant," said Liberty Fire Chief Lee Byers. "It's only a couple hydrants."

Gerald Mummert, chairman of the East Berlin Area Joint Authority, which oversees the borough's sewer and water systems, said there have been no issues with the hydrants causing problems during fire responses.

Phillips, however, said he was one of the first responders on the scene of a fire in the 200 block of East King Street late in the evening on Nov. 24 that severely damaged a house.

When he opened the hydrant across the street from that house, he said, he had to let the water run for about 15 seconds to clear the line.

"That's not a long time, but it feels like a long time when you've got a fire," he said. "It was like dark chocolate coffee coming out. You have to do that with all the hydrants."

Phillips said hydrant problems were not a factor in the severe damage the house sustained.

"Things went well this time," he said. "One of these times you're going to hit a hydrant and not get any water."

Councilman Robert Clayton, who is also on the water authority, said he learned from that board that seven of the borough's 55 hydrants are inoperable.

"Originally, they were saying there were two (that didn't work)," Clayton said. "Then when they had problems with a couple fires, now the count is seven.

"We don't have that many hydrants in town that you can run from hydrant to hydrant," he said. "We want the authority to start coming up with some answers."

The council agreed at its meeting Tuesday night to send a letter to authority chairman Mummert asking for a count of the number of fire hydrants in the borough, the schedule for testing the pressurization of those hydrants, the number and location of inoperative units, and the repair schedule for those hydrants.

"The problem has been long standing," said David Richards, council president and also a member of the authority. He said the hydrants have had problems with debris in the lines and low pressure for several years. He said the problem was known before the authority was formed two years ago and took over responsibility from the borough for most of the hydrants.

"Basically, the authority has done nothing (about hydrants) for two years," Richards said. "Now we're at a point where the public is taking notice that there is a problem."

After an impromptu inspection of several hydrants in town Friday, Phillips and borough planning commission chairman John Schlaline said they discovered two leaking hydrants and others that are sealed shut.

"They are leaking at the base, at the bottom," Schlaline said. "They (the authority) keep saying they are functional and up to date, but that's not right."

Clayton said problems with debris in the hydrant lines indicates that they are not being flushed on a regular basis.

"Some of them had to be run for about a minute (during the November fire) to clear it," he said. "That is not a hydrant that has been flushed."

Mummert, however, said the hydrants are being flushed.

He said he received the council's letter Thursday, and that he was not aware of a problem with the hydrants in relation to the November fire.

"I spoke with the fire chief on that fire and he reported that there was no problem," Mummert said.

He said the authority has been waiting to deal with the hydrant issue until after the new sewage treatment plant went online, which occurred just this week.

According to Mummert and others, the borough has older-style hydrants that would need to be replaced because they can't be repaired. They also have smaller feeder pipes, which would need to be replaced.

He said the authority has not performed a cost estimate to determine how much replacing the hydrants and lines would run. "We didn't go into that yet. We're taking it one step at a time," he said. "It's on the agenda. It's been discussed but you have to work things into the budget."

"It will be a large expense coming all at once," Richards said.

Schlaline, who was present during the East King Street fire, said the planning commission is pressing the borough to either replace the hydrants or perform regular maintenance.

"We have a system in place that is deteriorating every day," Schlaline said. "If we can get out there and flush them or put grease on the valves it would help. We need a decent preventive maintenance program."

Schlaline said his concern is that problems with the hydrants are costing firefighters time and effort, and could lead to a tragedy.

"Here was another fire that could have been handled better," he said. "The point is, it's getting worse. We're pressing into dangerous territory."

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