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159 hydrants out of service: How is Richmond fixing the problem

RICHMOND, Va. -- There were recently two house fires in the City of Richmond in the span of one week. While the fires were not connected, they both had something in common. The firefighters who responded encountered major obstacles when surrounding fire hydrants did not work.

Mamie Williams raised her kids on Castlewood Road in a home she was once called her dream home. But everything changed on the night of March 8.

Mamie Williams

“Every day is a cycle of my reliving it,” said Williams. “My son came to the door, opened up the door. He’s like Mom; the back porch is on fire.”

Williams said she jumped off her bed, ran into the hall, and saw the flames.

“My grand baby, my mom, my son, everybody just ran towards the front,” she recalled.

Firefighters worked feverishly to douse the flames, but they ran into a problem.

Through dispatch audio posted on the Broadcastify website, firefighters described what they encountered.

“Hey Castlewood command to engine 22, go ahead and bring a line in for me please… engine 22, okay.”

“Twenty-two to the next company go ahead and lay in from Lamberts and Jeff Davis, this hydrant is dead.”

“Engine 21-B to 21-A, give me some water.”

The fire hydrant at Castlewood and Alexander was out of service. Firefighters had to pull water from another one 200 feet away.

“I couldn’t believe my house was going up in flames. All my memories of my kids… nine years growing up in the house. Everything was gone,” said Williams.

Williams said she had previously reported the hydrant to the City of Richmond.

“A couple of times, a couple of neighbors had complained about it being out. Nobody responded to it,” said Williams.

One week later, there was a similar problem on Richmond’s Northside when fire engulfed a home on Rose Avenue.

“They were really having a really tough time dealing with it that evening,” said Piet Jones, who lives across the street from the fire.

“They were running around and they were looking and sounding really frustrated,” Jones recalled.

Jones captured the house fire on video.

“They were actually braced up against my wife’s jeep, which was parked right in front of the house with fire hoses, trying to get towards it when the facade of the house literally just peeled off and almost fell on top of them,” said Jones.

Firefighters managed to get water from a hydrant a block away, neighbors said.

“We have two fire hydrants on this block and if they’re not working, we’re all at risk,” said Jones.

The fires prompted the CBS 6 Problem Solvers to file a Freedom of Information Act requesting fire hydrant repair reports in the city.

From January 2015 to April 2017, Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities inspected more than 6,000 hydrants in the city.

Less than 200 were marked out of service and 44 fire hydrants were reportedly not working.

“We are keeping them to the best possible condition for any potential fire at any potential location,” Richmond Director of Public Utilities Robert Steidel said.

Steidel said city fire hydrants are inspected every two years and when used by the Department of Public Utilities. He said the city relied on police, fire, and the public to report problems with hydrants.

“We have a logistics center in DPU that’s 24/7, 365, that can receive those calls too. So, the idea is to make sure we have a person to person contact,” said Steidel.

But the CBS 6 Problem Solvers found repairing a broken hydrant can take days, weeks, or in some cases several months.

"It’s going to be based on the workload of the water distribution system when that hydrant comes out of service,” Steidel explained. “How many more are around it? So, that gives them the intelligent decision to be able to batch their work to be able to go to the right place.”

Steidel said he couldn’t comment on the problems with the specific fire hydrants at Castlewood Road and Rose Avenue, because of pending insurance claims, but he said safety was the city's number one goal.

“The most important thing is to make sure that we have adequate infrastructure available for the fire department to make good decisions and decide how they are going to attack their fire. And each one of those hydrants work to its maximum capacity,” he said.

For Mamie Williams, the most important thing is that her family escaped the fire alive. But rebuilding their life, will take a while.

“Everything was in this house. Everything...  So now we don’t have anything, but us. We got us,” said Williams.

DPU officials will soon have dedicated full-time inspectors to reduce the fire hydrant inspection process from two years to one.

If you know of a hydrant that’s not working, you are asked to call 804-646-7000 and tell the city where it’s located.

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