WSAZ Investigates | Inspection records reveal apparent gap in fire hydrant testing

In our latest "False Security" investigation, WSAZ's Curtis Johnson looks the ongoing issue of fire hydrant safety in the state of West Virginia.
Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 7:13 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Weeks after water districts were required to turn over inspection records for fire hydrants, one utility’s answer is raising concern about the reliability of those inspections.

The West Virginia Public Service Commission ordered utilities to produce the records June 30, amid weeks of investigation by WSAZ NewsChannel 3, and less than 24 hours after the station reported on a senator’s call for testimony.

The WSAZ investigation -- False Security -- stemmed from two fires with the same story. Firefighters didn’t have enough water May 5 to fight a house fire in Charleston, 15 months after crews encountered the same issue in failed efforts to save a Pizza Hut in Danville.

WSAZ’s Curtis Johnson, early in the investigation, asked the company responsible for those hydrants a wide range of basic questions about hydrants, from inspections to if the water lines are big enough to provide the water needed to fight fires.

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

“So, I actually don’t have that information for you right now,” replied Rob Burton, president of West Virginia American Water Company.

WSAZ’s investigation prompted West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to call for action.

“This is ridiculous, Curtis,” Justice told Johnson. “That’s all there is to it. I am right dead with ya. I mean, there’s no question whatsoever that the Legislature, the Public Service Commission ought to look into this and everything in any way, because you’re dead on the money.”

Lawmakers and the state’s Public Service Commission answered the call.

The PSC demanded information on hydrant maintenance from every water utility in the state. Its order required each water utility to submit inspection records and answer a series of questions -- some of the same questions WSAZ had been asking West Virginia American Water since early May.

“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,” Burton replied.

That’s close to what the company submitted in its response to the PSC -- that response claiming 98 percent of hydrants have been inspected each year since 2018.

But here’s the issue.

According to West Virginia American’s response to the PSC, during inspections there are three different levels of hydrant testing:

- A base-level test – performed annually – to check its mechanical parts and flush debris.

- A mid-level test – where a single hydrant is fully opened.

- And a full fire flow that puts the system to the test by opening multiple hydrants.

Johnson went through more than 650 pages of inspection records West Virginia American Water submitted to the PSC. He found nearly all of the inspections the company performed involved what appears to be hydrant testing at only a base level, meaning those hydrants were not put to a full fire flow test.

While West Virginia American Water says that test most accurately determines the hydrant’s ability to supply water for firefighting, the company states it typically conducts those tests “when a specific request or data need is involved.”

Johnson asked a company spokeswoman about the inspection data and testing protocols. She declined comment, citing litigation and the PSC investigation.

A PSC engineer, Jonathan Fowler, told lawmakers in early August about the national standard for flow testing. He said American Water Works Association M17 is the accepted consensus standard.

“M17 specifies that fire hydrants should be inspected annually and that they should be flow tested either every three years or every five years depending on which standard you are looking at,” Fowler told lawmakers. “Our regulations require utilities to comply with these national consensus standards.”

WSAZ asked the PSC for a document showing that requirement, but commission staff would only say, “until we have further proceedings we are not going to comment except through our orders.”

So Johnson turned to a national expert, John Shaw. He is a member of the American Water Works Association -- the group the PSC referenced in its presentation to lawmakers.

“There’s only one way to really test the system for fire protection, and it’s just that -- a fire flow test. Is that right?” Johnson asked.

“That’s correct,” Shaw replied. “It’s not even a question.”

“There’s no other way to provide confidence to the consumer or to the residents, that the hydrant’s are going to work, other than doing that test?” Johnson asked.

“That’s right,” Shaw replied. “Fire flow testing is the gold standard. If they’re not doing it, if they don’t have records of it, if they can’t tell you the strength of the distribution is your neighborhood, then you’ve got a problem.”

Experts recommend that level of testing once every five to ten years.

The PSC says it’s sorting through responses to see which utilities are following the standard and which are not.

“We are trying to determine how many utilities comply with that standard,” Fowler told lawmakers. “How many do not comply with that standard? And what we can do to encourage them to comply?”

As of Wednesday evening, more than 40 percent of the state’s water utilities were yet to answer that question.

The deadline to respond is Friday. The PSC warned about serious consequences and no extensions for utilities failing to comply.

As for how many West Virginia American hydrants remain on small mains, the company refused to give that information to WSAZ, but in its response to the PSC put that number at 290 hydrants -- a little less than 3 percent of its inventory.

However, the company told the PSC that number may be off due to issues with old mapping.