WSAZ Investigates | False Security

Knowing if the fire hydrant in your neighborhood will work is top of mind for many in our region. We look at issue in our latest investigation "False Security."
Published: Jun. 28, 2023 at 7:28 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A WSAZ Investigation -- False Security -- is making a difference and raising some important questions.

We’ve been telling you about two fires, in two cities, with the same outcome.

Firefighters who were at a house in Charleston and at a Pizza Hut in Danville say they were met by hydrants without enough water to put out the flames.

WSAZ NewsChannel 3 set out to find how widespread the issue is. We asked Danville’s fire chief to take us on a tour and found problems no one expected.

One stop brought us to a hydrant that produced so little water, the fire chief says crews would be unable to save the nearby state police barracks, health department or a nursing home.

“There’s no way that we would be able to help them,” said Chief Justin Chafin of the Danville Volunteer Fire Department. “We’re just trying to help to get them out as fast as we can before the fire takes over that building.”

NewsChannel 3′s Curtis Johnson started looking into who owns the hydrant. He found the Boone County Commission owns the land under and around hydrant, so he called the commission to find out more.

It turns out Commission President Brett Kuhn says the county didn’t even know it owned the hydrant.

Hours after Johnson’s call the hydrant covered by garbage bag.

“It was obvious from your news story that it was not putting out nearly enough water,” Kuhn said. “So we wanted to make sure that if there was anything that happened up on the hill, that the maintenance crew covered it up so that the fire department would know not to use that fire hydrant.”

Kuhn says it was installed in 1979, and present day county leaders assumed incorrectly that it belonged to West Virginia American Water -- since it provides water to the hydrant.

“Your contention is any of the lacking maintenance, any of the lacking testing, any of the lacking anything that happened with that hydrant was just, simply put, you guys just didn’t know it was yours?” Johnson asked.

“I think that’s fair to say that, yes,” Kuhn said.

“And the idea of how do we get to a point that it would have been known, you just don’t really know the answer there?” Johnson asked. “Is that right?”

“Certainly we’re glad your story shined a light on that so we can take the corrective measures that need to be taken,” Kuhn replied.

While the out-of-service hydrant is the closest, the commissioner and fire chief say another hydrant owned by West Virginia American Water, sitting just over the hill, produces enough water to handle those buildings.

But about 3 miles up the same road, the fire chief told WSAZ another West Virginia American hydrant would not be able to provide the water needed to save a home -- just 50 feet away.

Terry Nelson, a relative of the homeowner, Terry Nelson, was in disbelief when we told him about the issue.

“It’s kind of surprise because you just assume you know the water hydrant would have enough water to serve the purpose,” Nelson said.

Two days after WSAZ’s investigation aired, that relative called Johnson saying he had spotted a West Virginia American Water crew working at the hydrant.

Johnson asked the company about the visit. They told him a test of the hydrant showed it exceeded regulatory flow standards.

So WSAZ made a return visit, and still found no reading on the fire chief’s gauge for water pressure.

“I just wonder what their regulatory flow standard is,” Chafin said. “I know that we have a standard of what we like to see the hydrants produce. This is not it.”

So Johnson asked West Virginia American Water to explain its standard and like so many of our questions, the company offered no answer.

The lack of information came from the same company that owns 11,000 other hydrants statewide -- including the hydrants that didn’t have enough water to fight those fires at the Pizza Hut in Danville and the house in Charleston in Charleston.

Its the largest water provider in the state with nearly 600,000 customers.

Its monthly water rates -- doubling since 2005.

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

The company also added a new surcharge in 2017, one they say is partly to pay for water mains and you guessed it - fire hydrants.

Early in our investigation, Johnson asked company president, Rob Burton, about whether those customers are getting the service they’re paying for and the information they expect.

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

“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 replied. “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.”

Just two days after our story aired, Johnson asked Gov. Jim Justice about what he found.

“This is ridiculous, Curtis. That’s all there is to it,” Justice replied. “It is preposterous. I mean this is something like a -- I hate to say this because it’s just sounds terrible -- but this is something you’d see in a comedy, where great firemen would run to, you know, a fire hydrant and everything and it wouldn’t work.”

Included in the questioned asked by WSAZ to West Virginia American Water:

- Which hydrants work?

- Which ones are on smaller, outdated water lines?

- How many new hydrants has your money paid for?

WSAZ has received zero information.

Justice has called on the state Public Service Commission and lawmakers to investigate.

Regarding that red hydrant, owned by the Boone County Commission, its president tells WSAZ the county hopes to upgrade the hydrant and eventually give it over to the utility.