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North Adams Details Its Ongoing Struggles With Malfunctioning Fire Hydrants

A North Adams fire hydrant
Josh Landes
A North Adams fire hydrant

As North Adams, Massachusetts continues to struggle with malfunctioning fire hydrants, the city council heard a presentation on safety infrastructure Tuesday night.

Stoked by concerns around a fire at a public housing complex in late January, Council Vice President Jason LaForest filed a request for an update on the city’s hydrants. He got a response at this week’s city council meeting.

A North Adams fire hyrant
Credit Josh Landes
A North Adams fire hyrant

“We’re talking about a system of 630, 631 hydrants through the city, and the estimate that we have right now is that 500 of them would be fully operational. We have approximately 100 in need of complete replacement, and 30 in need of repair – that’s caps, valves and related upgrades," said Mayor Tom Bernard. “Ten years ago in 2010 the estimate was there were about 200 non-operative hydrants in the city. We’ve since then purchased 40 and installed 36 and worked on repair on others.”

He said the city is doing a software review to improve the tracking and management of its hydrants, and that North Adams needs to align its budget and its capital priorities around the issue.

“One thing that we need to do is get some additional support for that, so an immediate step will be pursuing a community compact for support in our capital plan development,” said Bernard.

The mayor said that hydrant construction and repair could be woven into community development block grant funding plans, and a city official pegged the cost of replacing 100 hydrants at around $250,000.

Councilor Keith Bona said he was concerned about the city’s efforts to clearly demarcate which hydrants do not work for the benefit of firefighters and Department of Public Works staffers, saying that he heard the current system involved painting broken hydrants green.

“I would think there would be something more visible so that firemen aren’t wasting their time going to a fire hydrant that they automatically, that they don’t know is not working,” said Bona.

He agreed with Bernard that the city had failed to prioritize its spending on hydrants, citing the previous year’s spending plan.

“The budget that we approved did not have any money in it for fire hydrants," Bona noted. "Typically there is money in there to replace five hydrants if not more, but last year I believe there was none. And it is something we approved, and we’ve got to pay attention that when the budget comes through, if this is a concern, to always make sure something like that is in there.”

LaForest read from a letter submitted by the city’s firefighter union to the public safety committee about its concerns about the hydrants.

“The state of disrepair first came to light in the aftermath of a garage fire in 2018," he read. "Chief Meranti ordered the members of the fire department to conduct a citywide survey of the hydrant system. This survey consisted of the on duty crews checking each and every hydrant in the city for deficiencies.”

They described their findings as astounding.

“Over half of the city’s hydrants had some sort of deficiency," continued LaForest. "This could range from being completely out of service, inaccessible, or simply having caps that could not be removed.”

The firefighters attempted some onsite repairs, including greasing up some valves for easier access.

“At the completion of the survey, Chief Meranti was promised a replacement of 10 hydrants per year. This promise has not been kept,” LaForest read.

The response to the January 29th fire at the Greylock Valley Apartments was hindered because the closest hydrant to the incident was out of service.

“Two members of the first due crew then had to then stretch over 300 feet of four-inch supply line to the next hydrant, which thankfully was operating as it should," said LaForest. "This resulted in valuable manpower and time being taken away from the first arriving crew of five firefighters.”

The union stressed the danger posed by the faulty infrastructure, saying it could hinder lifesaving efforts in subsequent fires.

Meranti said the issue is preventative maintenance.

“Other communities have a water department," said the chief. "We do not have a water department. We have one guy, he’s way overwhelmed with the work that’s required here. We need to look at putting on personnel and creating a water department that is going to maintain this stuff.”

The city’s struggles with safety infrastructure continued Friday morning with a serious fire at a building on Veazie Street that had no functioning hydrant nearby, once again requiring firefighters search for the nearest one and run hundreds of feet of hose to access water.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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