Martha’s Vineyard fire hydrants: water, water, not everywhere

This fire hydrant is located at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A fundamental flaw in the way local towns manage and maintain their system of fire hydrants sometimes causes delays in the first few minutes of attacking a fire, according to interviews with fire officials and water superintendents on Martha’s Vineyard.

Most often, firefighters rely on their training or simply their eyesight, not an accurate map or a digital display to find a fire hydrant, at a time when seconds can be vital to save lives and protect property.

“That’s something that is changing and improving,” Tisbury fire chief John Schilling said. “We are working toward a system where all the locations of the hydrants would be online with dispatch. That’s a few years away.”

Fire departments on the Island do not own, maintain, or map the location of active fire hydrants. Firefighters must rely on town water departments for that information.

In two recent fires, firefighters on the scene did not have ready access to information known to the water departments, causing delays.

Water department oversight is the only practical way to manage the hydrant system in a small town with a volunteer fire department, according to officials in town governments, but managing information is a challenge that sometimes overwhelms small departments with differing responsibilities. “We need them to flush the mains,” Tisbury water superintendent Paul Wohler said. “They need them to fight fires.”

Even in large cities, water departments manage the hydrant system, but often firefighters have more time and resources to devote to accurate records of hydrant locations and flows.

“When you come to a volunteer service,” said Oak Bluffs water district superintendent Tom Degnan, “they don’t get paid like mainlanders do. They do the best they can with what they have.”

Fire officials do not blame firefighters or water department employees for the information gaps. But they also concede that they can do better at communication between the two departments.

Water, water…

Two recent fires raised issues involving fire hydrants and illustrated the weakness in the current system.

On November 5, firefighters from the three down-Island towns rushed to a smoky fire at the Maciel Marine boatyard in Vineyard Haven.

The first Tisbury firefighters on the scene hooked into a hydrant just across the street from the boatyard, but they found there was not enough water pressure to fill the lines. They abandoned the hydrant, and quickly established a water supply by drawing seawater from Lagoon Pond.

“That hydrant didn’t give them much,” Mr. Wohler said. “That’s a four-inch cast iron pipe, which is undersized. There’s virtually no flow there at all.”

Mr. Wohler said the aging water main is partly blocked by mineral deposits that have built up over the years, and its location at the end of a water main contributed to the low pressure.

“We’re going to have to address that,” Mr. Wohler said. “That’s one of the gaps in the system that we intend to close.”

The Tisbury water department was aware of the pressure problem before the fire, from an engineering study done on the water main system. Mr. Wohler said information about the low flow was relayed to the fire department.

In the tense first moments of attacking a very dangerous fire, the firefighters who hooked up to the hydrant expecting an adequate source of water did not have that information.

Lost hydrant, lost time

On January 1, fast spreading flames consumed a home at 27 Spruce Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

The first officer on the scene directed a fire company to hook into a hydrant at the end of that street. It turned out that hydrant was no longer there.

“Many of the old-timers knew the hydrant was there,” Oak Bluffs fire chief Pete Forend said. “Nobody seems to know when the water company pulled it out.”

Expecting a working hydrant at the end of the street, firefighters instead found an authentic but inactive hydrant used as a lawn ornament placed inside a fenced dog pen on the last property on Spruce Avenue. When they began to hook up a hose, they realized it was not a working hydrant.

Mr. Degnan said there is no record at the water district offices of the hydrant being removed. He said it was not removed under his tenure as superintendent, which began in March of 2009.

The Oak Bluffs water district has a digital map of fire hydrant locations, created from an engineering study on the water main system.

“In these systems, depending on the engineering and field study, they could be flawed also,” Mr. Degnan said. “What I have is renderings of maps of where they should be, and corrections are constant.

Firefighters did not have ready access to the digital map at the fire scene. Fire officials said the delay in locating a hydrant wasted precious time, though all agreed the burning home was already beyond saving when they arrived.

Since the New Year’s Day blaze, the fire department has worked with the water department to improve the flow of information. That includes giving the fire department access to the digital map of the hydrant locations, and written notification of any change in the system.

“It’s a shame that something like that happens, but definitely it improves relations between the two departments,” Mr. Degnan said. “Whatever information we have, they’ll get, hopefully.”

Firefighters and water department officials know of other inactive hydrants on the Island, and are wary that they might be mistaken for real hydrants.

“I’m aware of five inactive hydrants (in Edgartown),” Chief Peter Shemeth of Edgartown said. “Most of them are in someone’s yard, so far off the beaten path you know it’s inactive, but there’s always the possibility.”

Data dilemma

Like any complex, evolving list of data, an accurate accounting of the location and flow rate of fire hydrants is difficult to maintain, water department managers said. Keeping firefighters and dispatchers updated when a hydrant is installed or removed, when an aging pipe reduces flow, or when a hydrant is damaged, adds another layer of complexity.

“To keep track of all the hydrants is difficult,” Chief Shemeth said. “Trying to keep up with it is the key. It would be great if we had the funding to put computers in every truck, but we’re spending it on basic equipment.”

All three down-Island fire departments have access to street maps with the location of fire hydrants marked, but the maps become obsolete the first time there is a change to the system.

“Current mapping and hard data is not up to date,” Chief Schilling said. “It’s not a perfect system. We at one point had a system where the hydrant caps were color coded to indicate the flow. Because there hadn’t been flow testing done recently, that info was out of date.”

Even if the system of updating the maps was perfect, there are still instances when no one knows a hydrant is not working.

“There is always the chance you get a hydrant that someone has hit with a motor vehicle,” Mr. Shemeth said. “Someone hits it, doesn’t report it, you go to tie into that hydrant, it’s inactive.”

Technical challenge

Fire officials are hopeful that Island departments can use a new software system to direct firefighters to the nearest hydrant using a GPS (global positioning system), the same technology now common in passenger vehicles. The same system might electronically deliver lot plans, and even floor plans of burning buildings directly to fire vehicles.

“That would be a vast improvement,” Chief Shemeth said. “It’s coming, but it’s not leaps and bounds, it’s baby steps.”

Coordinating different policies, procedures, and methods of compiling and storing data in the six Island towns is no simple technological feat. A software system to automate much of the reporting mandated by state law has taken far longer than expected to set up.

“Now all six Island departments are working with the same reporting software for the first time,” Chief Schilling said. “That’s taken quite a lot of time and a lot of money.”