WSAZ Investigates | False Security

In our latest investigation, 'False Security,' we look into the issue of low-water pressure at fire hydrants in parts of the region.
Published: Jun. 5, 2023 at 7:20 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Shortly before midnight, May 5, firefighters rushed to the scene of a house fire in Charleston.

Crews reported heavy fire, but scanner traffic reveals their biggest challenge was not the flames, it was finding a hydrant with enough water to put out the fire.

“Have you made contact with the water company and figured out anything of why all of these hydrants have no pressure?” a Charleston firefighter asked Metro 911.

WSAZ NewsChannel 3 confirmed three hydrants in the area were not working that night. No one was hurt, but the house was destroyed and the homeowner’s dog died in the fire.

NewsChannel 3′s Curtis Johnson found May 5 was not the first time a faulty hydrant has been a problem.

In Danville, West Virginia, a Pizza Hut in the heart of downtown burned to the ground in February 2022. The fire chief says they were on scene in minutes, but said this of the nearby hydrant.

“It just didn’t have enough water pressure to do anything where the fire overtook the building before we could do anything,” said Chief Justin Chafin of the Danville Volunteer Fire Department.

“What was the impact of having low water pressure?” Johnson asked.

“I think it was 100% -- the whole reason why we couldn’t save that building,” Chafin answered.

“What are the chances that what happened to Pizza Hut could happen elsewhere in Danville?” Johnson asked.

“Depending on where we are, 100%. It will happen,” Chafin said.

So Johnson asked Chafin to WSAZ on a tour. What they found, the chief calls concerning.

For instance, they tested a hydrant sitting next to a State Police barracks in Danville. It is located across from the Boone County Health Department and less than a football field from this nursing home.

But Chafin says that hydrant put out less water than firefighters had battling flames at Pizza Hut in Februray 2022.

“There’s not enough water in that hydrant to help us with any type of fire suppression, if anything happens,” Chafin said.

“We’re within feet of a nursing home where families have family members and things of that nature,” Johnson inquired. “Should that be a concern?”

“Very much a concern,” Chafin replied. “There’s bedfast and handicapped people inside of the nursing home. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if there was really a big fire at that place. There’s no way that we would be able to help them. We’re just trying to help to get them out as fast as we can before the fire takes over that building.”

That was in town, and Johnson found country roads led them to the same problem.

Pressure at another hydrant -- just 50 feet from a residence --- was so low that it wouldn’t register on the fire department’s gauge.

“To know that we have hydrants and water pressure -- they’re false sense of security, you know,” Chafin said. “You think that you got a water hydrant sitting right in front of your house, the fire department’s going to be able to come up here and put the fire out and save my house, but in reality that’s just not going to happen.”

“So, that double wide sitting right there, you cannot say based on that hydrant alone?” Johnson asked.

“I don’t think we would have enough water to keep up with the hoses that we would put out to put the fire out,” Chafin replied.

“This is a matter of life and death?” Johnson asked.

“It very well could be, unfortunately,” Chafin said.

So Johnson paid the home a visit.

It’s owners did not wish to speak on camera, but Terry Nelson, a relative who visits frequently and owns the adjoining property, watched that portion of Chafin’s interview.

“When you see that, what’s your reaction?” Johnson asked.

“It’s kind of surprise because you just assume, you know, the water hydrant would have enough water to serve the purpose -- that’s put into extinguish fires,” Nelson replied. “If it won’t extinguish the fire, what good is it?”

Aside from a lack of water, the issues Johnson found in Danville and the Charleston house fire have a common thread -- West Virginia American Water.

The company is the largest water provider in the state with nearly 600,000 customers. Its monthly water rates have nearly doubled since 2005.

This is in a state where customers already pay the highest water bills in the country, $91 on average, according to World Population Review.

“As a firefighter and as a citizen, you wonder what they’re actually using those rate increases for,” Chafin said. “We really don’t see a whole lot of improvements to the system.”

In 2017, the company added a new surcharge to your bill -- the Distribution System Improvement Charge. The company’s press releases have stated part of that charge is supposed to pay for fire hydrants.

So Johnson went to the president of West Virginia American Water Company, Rob Burton.

“Generally speaking, how is that money used?” Johnson asked.

“It’s a combination of potentially tying a hydrant to a new main, potentially replacing a hydrant. Sometimes it’s putting one in when there isn’t one there,” Burton replied.

“Specifically, how many hydrants have been done on that?” Johnson asked. “Do you guys have that information? Do you guys have an idea of that?”

“I don’t have that information right now, no,” Burton replied.

Johnson also asked about hydrant maintenance.

“I’m just interested in knowing how does your company keep track of hydrant service?” Johnson asked.

“We do annual maintenance and inspection on those hydrants,” Burton replied.

“Every one of them,” Johnson asked.

“Every single hydrant, every year,” he replied.

“Do you guys have real-time information on which hydrants are working and which ones are not?” Johnson asked.

“So, we do have GPS locations of where our hydrants are, but we don’t have some real-time system that monitors the hydrant on an ongoing basis, no sir,” Burton replied.

But with a system of 11,000 hydrants, across 19 counties, Johnson wanted to know what does that mean for your family?

“There’s elderly folks, elderly family members, living close to those hydrants across West Virginia,” Johnson said. “Don’t you think they would like to know if their hydrants working or not?”

“And again, that’s why we do that annual inspection, which is the standard that’s used, you know, and really, that’s considered a best practice to do those annual inspections,” Burton answered. “And that’s why we do that work.”

“But short of someone pulling up and hooking to the hydrant -- you or the fire department -- it’s conceivable that 10 months could go on, and no one knows the hydrant is out of service,” Johnson asked.

“The reality is, there’s lots of conditions that can change in between inspections,” Burton replied. “That’s what every utility faces, but again, the best practice is to provide for those annual inspections and that’s what we do.”

I also asked about the company’s aging infrastructure.

For instance, the water main feeding the hydrant firefighters used at Pizza Hut is approximately 100 years old, according to documents West Virginia American Water filed with state regulators. The cast iron pipe, so old, it was grandfathered in.

State law having since changed in 1994, requiring new hydrants to be installed on a 6-inch main to provide enough water to fight fires.

“Do you know which hydrants are on what size mains?” Johnson asked Burton.

“We have pretty good information on that,” he replied. “We’re doing some validation. We do validation periodically on our GIS information to verify what is actually in the field versus what our mapping shows.”

“Are you indicating some of the mapping is not accurate?” Johnson asked.

“I’m indicating that we do like everyone else, and we update our systems over time,” Burton replied.

“Rough estimate,” Johnson asked. “What percentage of these 11,000 hydrants are on a main that’s less than 6 inches?”

“So I actually don’t have that information for you right now. That would be something that we might, could follow up with you,” Burton replied.

Since that interview, Johnson sent the company six emails asking for that information, but a spokesperson refused to answer questions.

The company only pointed Johnson to an infrastructure map on its website and to documents it has filed with state regulators.

Johnson searched the map and found no information on hydrants.

As for the documents, nowhere could Johnson find a list of hydrants that your money has purchased, and WSAZ has received zero information on which hydrants work and which ones are on what size water main.

Back in Danville, less than 50 feet from a hydrant, that’s unable to save his brother-in-law’s home, this West Virginia American rate payer says he has new concern.

“Is it is it fair to say that they’re having that hydrant out there in front of your brother-in-law’s place provided some sense of security,” Johnson asked.

“Sure,” Nelson replied. “Well, yeah, I mean yes, it provides a lot of sense of security because you’d think the fire truck and run up here connect the hose to it and extinguish a blaze.”

“But now?” Johnson asked.

“But now, you’ve got my doubts,” he answered. “They surely have the money and the expertise to design and install a water line that can take care of what is supposed -- that’s extinguishing fires.”

Work is underway by West Virginia American Water to replace the water main used by firefighters at the Pizza Hut in Danville.

WSAZ will continue to reach out to the company to try to get those answers on how many hydrants remain on those smaller water mains, how many are working and how much of your money has been used to replace them. Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest.