News 4 uncovers fire hydrant hazard

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — When is the last time anyone inspected the fire hydrant closest to your house? The hydrant you would rely on during a fire may be rusted, busted or breaking into pieces, and inspectors may not even know.

News 4 Investigates reviewed hundreds of pages of public records. We found cities, towns and villages handle hydrant inspections very differently. A loophole in state law allows municipalities to do whatever they want. Because of our investigation, a state senator vows to take action.

A Lesson learned too late

One December day Charles Quigley’s life changed forever. “I came out, looked outside and I seen flames.” Those flames jumped from a neighbor’s house to his.

Quigley watched as firefighters struggled to connect to the hydrant in front of his house on Nevada Avenue on Buffalo’s east side. “It took so long for them to get a water source…that it eventually caught my house on fire. [The hydrant is] literally feet away from the fire and they’re not even using it because it doesn’t work,” he told us on the day of the fire.

Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak maintains the hydrant was working. He says firefighters chose not to use it. “They saw there was a loose valve in there. It would have held, but they didn’t want to chance it, and they went and moved onto another hydrant,” Stepniak recalled during a recent interview.

Workers replaced that problem hydrant the next day. Stepniak says the city maintains a supply of hydrants that can be easily installed, rather than having workers make repairs on the spot.

Crews from Buffalo water check the city’s eight thousand hydrants several times a year. “When they go in there, and they do that full inspection, if they feel like the hydrant has seen better days, they go and replace it,” Stepniak said. Complete overhauls happen every three years.

What happens elsewhere?

News 4 Investigates started asking questions months ago, hoping to see what other cities, towns and villages do. We filed New York Freedom of Information requests to check Orchard Park, East Aurora, Kenmore, the Town of Tonawanda, Grand Island, Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Many municipalities produced dozens of pages. The Town of Tonawanda gave us hundreds of records. The department of public works in East Aurora couldn’t produce a single record. They returned a handwritten note saying, “We do not keep Inspection Reports for the fire hydrants. I checked with the E.C. [Erie County] Health Department, and it is not a requirement.”

East Aurora Response

No one from the village would talk to us on camera. Their public works director told News 4 Investigates over the phone every hydrant in the village gets checked every two years. Workers have not maintained records up to this point.

What goes into an inspection?

“It’s public safety. If a hydrant doesn’t work and there’s a fire, it’s just a lot more work for the firemen to have to go some place to draw water,” Village of Orchard Park public works director Michael Murphy explained. He was surprised to hear some places don’t perform regular inspections.

He invited News 4 to see what happens when his crews show up at a hydrant. They typically inspect all hydrants once a year.

“Generally, what we’ll find if there’s a problem, is the nut on top will start to work very hard. It’ll take two people to open or close it,” crew chief Emery Wittmeyer explained.

The hydrant we watched him inspect was installed in October 2015. As expected, it showed no problems. Workers use food-grade lubricant to make sure the caps stay protected and the nuts are not stripped.

The Village of Orchard Park has maintained meticulous records for 15-20 years.

What’s required by law?

Those records are not required by law. Section 508 of state law says, ” …Fire hydrant systems shall be subject to periodic tests as required by the code enforcement official.”

Hydrant-THE LAW

Periodic is not defined. We checked the New York State Fire Marshals & Inspectors Association hoping for clarification. They referred us to The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Their codes do not even cover municipal fire hydrants.

State senator Tim Kennedy (D, Buffalo) believes the law needs uniformity. He could not tell us why legislators have never addressed this issue. “We have begun the process of discussing this with fire marshals both locally and across the state – figuring out what they do on a regular basis, or what they don’t do on a regular basis,” Kennedy noted.

The state senator has started drafting a bill to address this issue. He’ll spend the summer trying to find support for it.

Photos reveal trouble

News 4 Investigates also filed open records requests with the Erie County Water Authority. They released images showing hydrants in terrible condition. Some were rusted. Others appear broken. One even has what looks like a bird’s nest inside the pipe.

Hydrant-5-Bird

No one would want to rely on one of these hydrants during a fire.

Charles Quigley says the new hydrant in front of his house came too late. He’ll never forget what firefighters told him the day his house burned. “We can’t get water. We’re trying to find a water source.”

Did the hydrant hazard really make a difference that day? Quigley may never know. He believes regular inspections will help insure he never has to stare danger in the face again.

If you’re worried about a hydrant by your house, try contacting the public works department in your village, town or city.

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