Hydrants and water lines questioned after fatal Jeannette fire

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By journalsofus.com

Jeannette Fire Chief Bill Frye said aging city water lines affected firefighters’ ability to extinguish an overnight fire that killed a father and his four young children at a Guy Street home.

Both Frye and Westmoreland County Municipal Authority officials confirmed Wednesday that a 6-inch water line is feeding fire hydrants near the fire scene. That and the fact that water needed to be pushed through uphill lines contributed to the problem, Frye said.

“We installed a line immediately from the hydrant to here. The hydrant didn’t give us enough water to get up the hill,” she said.

Firefighters were able to access a second hydrant on the highway and, through the use of several tanker trucks, eventually obtained enough water to fight the fire.

“By the time we got water, the main house was already collapsing,” Frye said.

Jeannette’s water system and management of the city’s fire hydrant network are overseen by the Westmoreland County Municipal Authority. The authority purchased the Jeannette water system in 2015.

MAWC performs year-round inspections of more than 8,700 fire hydrants throughout its five-county service area.

Inspection reports reviewed Wednesday by the Trib revealed that the hydrant at Guy and Second streets was last inspected in June. Upon inspection, it was found to be operational and did not require repairs.

A 2020 inspection noted that the hydrant was struck by a vehicle, but no repairs were needed.

MAWC reported this month that nine hydrants throughout its service area are functional but should be replaced. Another 15 hydrants are out of service and must be replaced. In February, the authority conducted 645 hydrant inspections, repaired seven, tested water flows at two and replaced six hydrants.

Each hydrant is inspected every 18 months.

The authority budgeted $300,000 to repair and replace fire hydrants during the 2024-2025 fiscal year that begins in April.

“We are very diligent in maintaining our fire hydrants,” said Brian Hohman, deputy director of the authority. “Hydrants are a regional issue and it is about the volume of water that is a function of the diameter of the pipes that serve them in the area.”

The Guy Street hydrant recorded a static pressure of 82 pounds of force per square inch and is within the standards set by the National Fire Protection Association.

Officials said it is the size of water service lines that determines whether firefighters have access to sufficient water supplies.

That’s where the problem lies in Jeannette, according to Frye, who said firefighters are aware that they can’t get enough pressure from some hydrants, especially those placed on steeper slopes, like the plug located near Guy’s house fire. Street.

And especially when firefighters needed to use a hose that shoots 1,000 gallons per minute to fight the flames.

“There’s no other option there,” he said. “Every hydrant is in the same system, in the same network.”

MAWC officials said fire departments throughout their service area have access to the authority’s mapping system that details water system operations, including data detailing water pressure and flows along the service lines and fire hydrants.

It’s that data that firefighters can use to determine the best hydrant to access, Hohman said.

Frye said Jeannette used that information to fight the Guy Street fire, but city leaders insist the city’s aging infrastructure must be addressed.

Firefighters previously used the hydrant at Guy and Second Street in 2017 to extinguish a fire at a neighboring home that has since been replaced, Frye said. That fire was a little closer to the Second and Guy hydrant and there were a couple rooms on fire, but it wasn’t as windy or moving as fast as Wednesday’s inferno.

“We used three lines and fought a pretty complicated fire that day with no problems with that hydrant,” he said. “So I asked (the authority) to investigate to see if there were any blockages or maintenance issues with the hydrant.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a TribLive reporter covering Westmoreland County government, politics and the courts. He can be contacted at rcholodofsky@triblive.com.

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