Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Unusable Fire Hydrants Plague Town

Vic Bradshaw
Frederick News Post

(8/16/2003) That moniker could apply to this northern Frederick County hamlet. After all, the National Fire Academy and the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial are just outside town. They make Emmitsburg a place frequented by top firefighting professionals around the world.

But once you cross the town line, the story changes. The Vigilant Hose Co. occasionally is hampered when trying to access a vital firefighting resource -- water.

Parts of Emmitsburg have unusable fire hydrants. Black tops remind firefighters that a hydrant can't or shouldn't be used because problems with water lines or outdated designs have rendered them ineffective or obsolete. Several of the useless hydrants dot Seton Avenue, some sitting just a short distance from the fire academy campus.

Though the system isn't functioning fully, the inoperable hydrants apparently don't make Emmitsburg a fire trap. Frank Davis, chief of Vigilant Hose, said working hydrants sit close to nonworking ones. Firefighters would be delayed "maybe a minute" while running extra hose to reach a working hydrant, he said, but he admitted that such a delay could cost a life.

"It's not an ideal situation," the chief said, "but we've adapted."

Still, town leaders believe it's an adaptation firefighters shouldn't have to make, and they're taking steps to make the system fully operational.

Mayor Jim Hoover said residents on subpar lines aren't getting proper service from the town, and they haven't for years. To him, the improvements can't come quick enough.

"This problem is over 20 years old," he said, "and we've done very little until recently ... to solve those problems."

Part of the hydrant problem is being addressed now. Jim Click, the town's streets and parks superintendent and the fire company's deputy chief, said old-style hydrants that won't accept modern fire fittings are being replaced gradually. Five outdated hydrants remain in the town, he said.

The biggest problem is with old, neglected water lines. Replacing those pipes will take years and cost town water and sewer customers about $1 million.

Town Manager David Haller said some of Emmitsburg's water pipes are 50 to 60 years old. Installed by the private company that ran the water system before the town bought it, those 4-inch mains now might allow only a 2-inch stream of water because of rust and oxidation buildup.

That's the case for 10 hydrants, most of them on South Seton and North Seton. The rest are along Mountain View Road, which is outside the town limits but was on the water system when it was purchased.

The Waynesboro Pike line, another out-of-town system the town inherited, also has problems. No timetable is set for its replacement.

Because of the establishment of a water and sewer enterprise fund two years ago, the town has funding for line replacement projects. With partial help from Mountain View residents, Emmitsburg will replace the line on that road next year.

In 2005, South Seton Avenue's line is slated to be replaced. The North Seton line, which would've been replaced by a developer this year or next if the Silver Fancy annexation hadn't been defeated in a referendum vote, is on the drawing board for 2006.

The town also is repairing a sewer trunk line, Mr. Haller said, meaning it will have three projects going on simultaneously at times.

"That's very aggressive for more municipalities and extremely aggressive for the pace Emmitsburg had experienced," he said.

Dan Fissel, the town's water and sewer systems superintendent, said that once the new lines are in place, corrosion control efforts should prevent the pipes from clogging again.

"Theoretically," he said, "they'll never be in the shape they're in now once they're replaced."

But until those new pipes are in the ground, residents must rely on a far-from-perfect system.

Emmitsburg's been lucky for some time. Mr. Davis, a Vigilant firefighter for 25 years and the company's chief for the last 13, said the town has had homes burn over the years but hasn't had a major fire. The last big blaze he could recall was when a bowling alley on Main Street burned in the 1960s.

Cities and towns apparently experience problems similar to Emmitsburg's with some frequency. Tom Olshanski, spokesman for the National Fire Academy, said metropolitan areas face a lot of water delivery challenges, and sections sometimes are shut down for maintenance or other reasons. Fire trucks have regularly updated lists of out-of-service hydrants.

"In any community," he said, "hydrants are on and off service all the time."

Aside from the hydrant issues, which he thinks were ignored for too long, Mr. Davis said the town has a great system. It provides better volume and pressure than most small communities, he said.

Emmitsburg has taken steps to ensure it can get water to hydrants at crucial times. Mr. Fissel said that if the water volume or pressure dips below certain levels, which could happen in a fire, an emergency pressure valve should open and send as much as 100,000 gallons would flow into the town's system from the water supply at Mount St. Mary's College.

As subdivisions pop up around the town, hydrants have been added in spots where coverage was weak. Still, problem areas remain.

Though state funds could hasten the line replacement, Mr. Hoover said it's not the state's responsibility. The town created the problem by neglecting the lines, he said, so it shouldn't depend on the state to bail it out. Maryland will help by providing construction loans for the project.

The mayor surmised that the water delivery system "was allowed to deteriorate and depreciate because it was kind of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It's buried in the ground.

"But the system is 70-plus years old. You can't with a good conscience believe the delivery system is in good shape, and ignoring that hasn't benefited anybody."

Read other news stories related to the Emmitsburg Town Government