Thursday, September 17, 2009

Firefighters were not prepared to handle a July 29 house fire that engulfed a large Northwest Washington home and destroyed a 40-year-old collection of valuable artwork owned by a former schools official, D.C. officials said Wednesday.

The Committee on Public Works and Transportation, during a hearing Wednesday, examined the status of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s maintenance and repair of the city’s fire hydrants and heard more than two hours of testimony from firefighters and maintenance officials.

Still, it is not clear whether the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services had an adequate amount of water to battle the blaze during which at least 150 firefighters struggled with low water pressure, Chief Dennis L. Rubin told D.C. Council members Jim Graham, Mary M. Cheh and Phil Mendelson. Mrs. Cheh is not a committee member.

“Sir, I know you’re looking for a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but I don’t have one,” Chief Rubin testified before Mr. Graham when he asked whether there was enough water to fight the fire. “That’s, of course, the $64,000 question. That’s why we’re here. Considering all the factors, we had firemen all over the place, and we may never know that.”

The chief also told the panel that the crews were using old water system maps while fighting the fire.

But what was clear was the lack of water pressure and knowledge of fire hydrant locations that could provide the necessary water, among other issues, created what Chief Rubin called, “a perfect storm” of factors contributing to the fire. Other factors included a century old water supply infrastructure that struggled to pump water uphill, further reducing water pressure.

“There was no plan here,” said Mr. Graham, who serves as chairman of the committee. “There was no recognition of what was needed in this neighborhood.”

Officials from both the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) and the fire department continued pointing fingers at each other in their testimonies as to who was to blame for what city leaders called a “poor response” to the July 29 blaze that destroyed Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s mansion on Chain Bridge Road. Ms. Cafritz is the former president of the D.C. Board of Education.

“We again find ourselves guessing at what needs to be done, and if what needs to be done will in fact be done,” said Mrs. Cheh, who represents Ward 3 where the blaze occurred.

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, was concerned about the response time of firefighters and maintenance officials, who took an extra 41 minutes to locate sufficient hydrants on neighboring MacArthur Boulevard.

Avis Marie Russell, interim general manager for WASA, testified that heavy traffic flows prohibited WASA officials from responding quickly because the agency’s vehicles do not have emergency sirens to plow through large vehicle volumes.

“It’s puzzling to me why WASA couldn’t have used a telephone,” Mr. Graham responded.

Fire hydrant operability has been a problem since 2007 after two fire hydrants did not work near a three-alarm blaze near the Georgetown Public Library. As a result, WASA now “flow tests” the hydrants and marks them with color-coded bands to indicate water pressure.

The banding process has been criticized by firefighters who say it is confusing. Green banding indicates the hydrant is operable but scheduled for future maintenance. Red banding means the hydrant is out of service because of water infrastructure work or the hydrant works but is inaccessible to firefighters - which are typically located behind construction fences or barriers.

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary also investigating the blaze, pointed to a concentrated area of three hydrants about two miles from the Cafritz blaze that have been out of service since between December 2008 and May 2009.

WASA set a 10-day period in which fire hydrants that are out of service are repaired, however, it has been months since these were touched, he added.

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