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North Adams Auditing Fire Hydrants & 'Bagging' for Out-of-Service
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
05:49PM / Monday, February 22, 2021
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North Adams is marking non-working hydrants after a two fires revealed seized or frozen hydrants.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Works Department will be "bagging" nonfunctioning hydrants to give firefighters an immediate notice of which ones aren't working. 
 
That doesn't mean every other hydrant will be in working order, Commissioner of Public Services Timothy Lescarbeau warned the Public Services Committee last Thursday. 
 
The condition of the city's hydrant system came into sharp focus after firefighters had to deal with broken or frozen hydrants during two fires a couple weeks apart. Thursday's meeting was the second time a subcommittee had discussed the problem in less than two weeks. 
 
The city has 631 fire hydrants of which about 500 are functional. Around 100 need to be fully replaced and another 30 can be repaired, according to earlier reports. The city had been buying five a year since first addressing the issue in 2011, although last year's order was canceled as part of a financial freeze during the pandemic. 
 
Lescarbeau said he had met with water foreman Colin Todd, highway foreman Paul Markland and Mayor Thomas Bernard to review the hydrant situation. 
 
The decision was to buy the bags and do an audit of the hydrant system to reconcile conflicting numbers of how many fire plugs are of service. 
 
The bags are on order but they expected to have the list completed and out-of-service hydrants bagged within the next few weeks. 
 
"We actually have some that are old that we don't know if they work or not because they're old. We're afraid to open them especially in the wintertime, because they freeze," Lescarbeau said.
 
Parts of the hydrant system date back 100 years. 
 
Todd said he is going through the last flushing log, which documents the conditions of the hydrants and the water, and the amount of time the water was run.
 
"That's all done on pen and paper really. ... it's obviously a lengthy process, there's a lot of hydrants so it's time consuming," Todd said. "But we're also in the process of trying to make it more tech savvy, so to speak, so to speak so that this can all be documented through a program instead of on paper."
 
Lescarbeau thought an automated system would aid in communications between the Fire Department and public works and allow for reports on a more regular basis. That would cost money, he said.
 
Todd and Lescarbeau also explained the terms being used to describe the functioning of the hydrants, and the difference between being "frozen" or "seized up."
 
Todd said hydrants have a 4-inch cap on the front, called a steamer cap, and 2 or 2 1/2 inch caps on the side. These are brass fittings that can accommodate a 2-inch hose or a 4-inch hose. 
 
The bolt on top of the hydrant is called an operating knob that turns a shaft inside to open the valve at the bottom of the hydrant and allow water to flow up and through one of the caps. 
 
A broken hydrant would be one that cannot be used in a safe manner, it may be broken inside so water leaks out, or the leading on the caps could be old and weak. A frozen plug is literally that: weep holes designed for the water to drain out are plugged or the valve on the bottom doesn't sit right, causing the water remain inside the hydrant. If the ice doesn't give, it can snap the shaft.
 
Seized means the cap won't come off, usually because of rust.
 
"When they are flushed, we use food grade antifreeze on them, but with all the salt and being so close to the road, that usually plays a huge factor," Todd said.
 
All of the caps are removed and greased during flushing but it can be hard to get them off, he said. Replacing the fittings can cost about $2,000 compared to about $3,000 for a complete hydrant, including connections, extensions and settings.
 
In response to questions, Lescarbeau said the city goes by the best practices of the New England Water Works Association, a chapter of the American Water Works Association. Most of the maintenance is during flushing, when all the hydrants are opened and greased and broken ones identified.
 
He also explained the Water Department budget which shows 2 1/2 employees despite Todd being the only worker. The other full-time person is a meter reader who has nothing to do with maintenance except in an emergency and the half-time person is the retired water foreman, who is currently not available because of an injury. 
 
An individual has been hired who will start in a couple weeks, said Lescarbeau. "We are the lowest paid employees in the state, basically. I can't hire licensed operators at the rates that we pay."
 
Instead, the city has been hiring people and training them — and then they go to the next town for better wages, he said. "I mean licensed operators are hard to get anyways. But our situation doesn't make it any easier."
 
Fire Chief Stephen Meranti pointed out that both Williamstown and Adams had more employees in their water departments than the city did. 
 
"They maintain the hydrants in the summertime, they inspect the hydrants and maintain the hydrants in the wintertime," he said. "It's something that is not a laborers' job, it's a profession and we need to treat it like one." 
 
Councilor Jason LaForest, who also attended the Zoom meeting, has submitted a communication to the City Council for Tuesday night requesting it consider the creation of a "Fire Hydrant Division." He also asked it be referred to the Public Safety Committee of which he is chairman. 
 
Meranti clarified the conditions of the hydrants at the Veazie Street fire: the one on the corner of School and Veazie was frozen, the one at 20 Veazie was missing (Todd said a delivery truck hit and it was never reported or replace) and the caps wouldn't come off the first one attempted on River Street. That last one had been noted in 2018, he said, when the Fire Department had been checking them.
 
He said 28 nonfunctioning hydrants had been added to dispatch's computer system with Todd's help. 
 
However, he did not think there was any duplication of hydrants because of street listings, which Todd has suggested earlier in the meeting.
 
"Dispatch has a mapping system so that they can pull up and they can see all the hydrants that we have listed on a map," Meranti said. "So they'd be able to look on Cady Street and see what the closest hydrant is on Cady Street, and we're not seeing any duplicate hydrants."
 
Todd said he hadn't compared lists yet but also thought there may be more than 631 hydrants in the city. No one knew when the last time there had been an audit of the system. 
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