Firefighters dispatched to a Lakeville restaurant last summer got an unpleasant surprise when they arrived: The nearest fire hydrant didnâ€™t work.
They rushed to a second hydrant and were able to quickly extinguish the small fire. But Fire Chief Mike Meyer said they were fortunate. â€œThereâ€™s a time loss. You wind up diverting people away from extinguishing the fire to dragging the hose,â€ he said.
The incident illustrates an unsettling problem facing some Twin Cities suburbs, a situation discovered almost by accident last year: Many of their privately owned fire hydrants didnâ€™t work.
Most hydrants are owned and maintained by cities, but communities throughout the Twin Cities also have some that are privately owned. They were often installed at apartment and townhouse complexes but also can be found next to strip malls, warehouses and some churches.
City officials in Burnsville, LakeÂville and Eagan discovered last year that most owners werenâ€™t maintaining their hydrants because they didnâ€™t know they were supposed to. â€œThey were under the impression their hydrants were public, and that the city was taking care of them,â€ said Steve Albrecht, Burnsvilleâ€™s public works director.
In some cases, decades had passed with the hydrants uninspected. Tests suggest that as many as one in five of the private hydrants in the cities donâ€™t work.
Minnesotaâ€™s fire code requires that all hydrants be inspected annually and kept in working order.
In addition to Lakeville, Burnsville also knows of at least one instance in which firefighters have shown up to a fire and the first hydrant they tried didnâ€™t work. They also were able to switch to other nearby hydrants in time. â€œWe all had been lucky, but the potential is there,â€ Albrecht said.
Burnsville and other neighboring cities have begun contacting private hydrant owners, letting them know theyâ€™ll need to document inspections and take care of repairs. In most cases, owners will have the option of hiring outside contractors to do the work or have the city do it and bill them.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to be proactive, and the owners have been supportive,â€ Albrecht said.
Burnsville was the first in Dakota County to come across the potential safety hazard when it began testing public and private hydrants as part of a project to upgrade them with new nozzles.
â€œIt was concerning,â€ Albrecht said. The tests led the city to conclude that 15 to 20 percent of its 1,300 private hydrants were not functioning.
Burnsville shared what it had learned with public works and fire departments in neighboring cities, which did their own round of checks and found similar results.
â€œIt was an â€˜Aha! moment,â€™â€‰â€ said Russ Matthys, public works director in Eagan, where more than 500 of the cityâ€™s 4,000 hydrants are privately owned.
Firefighters responding to last summerâ€™s small fire at the Chart House restaurant in Lakeville initially hooked up their hoses to the non-working hydrant as a backup to the water supply in their truck, Meyer said. Diverting firefighters to move the hose to a second hydrant could have had serious consequences, he said.
Burnsville firefighters encountered a similar situation last year with a small fire at the Arbor Vista mobile home park. â€œYou assign personnel to a fire based on the assumption that the first hydrant works,â€ said Fire Chief B.J. Jungmann. In addition to problems resulting from diverting people to a different task, using a longer hose can lower water pressure, making it more difficult to put fires out. â€œWe carry 600 to 700 gallons of water in our trucks, but that sometimes can go pretty quickly,â€ Jungmann said.
Meyer and Jungmann said owners of the two businesses have fixed the non-working hydrants. Spokesmen for the Chart House and Arbor Vista declined to be interviewed.
Albrecht said Burnsville and the other cities worked together to make their new rules on private hydrants similar. â€œWe didnâ€™t want to have a company doing business in two cities to have different requirements that made business difficult,â€ he said.
Older cities have dealt with the issue of private fire hydrants for many years because much of their commercial development occurred several decades ago. Bloomington has had procedures for inspecting and maintaining private fire hydrants for at least 20 years, according to Greg Randahl, a senior utility service specialist for the city.
Albrecht and Matthys said their cities are confronting the issue now because many private fire hydrants are now about 30 years old. In some cases they might not have been inspected since they were installed when a commercial property was built.
â€œWeâ€™re not a brand new city anymore,â€ Matthys said.