Open fire hydrants worry Peters Township officials

Published Jul 3, 2014 at 3:54 pm (Updated Jul 3, 2014 at 3:54 pm)

In his more than 30 years as the fire chief in Peters Township, Dan Coyle can recall only one time a fire hydrant in the township was opened without permission. However, in the past week, the fire department has been called out four times to shut off opened hydrants scattered throughout residential areas in the township.

Each time a hydrant is opened, the fire department must respond, shut off the water and test the hydrant to ensure it is in proper working order. If a hydrant is not tested, the result could be a break in the line, and if it is not properly drained, the hydrant could freeze in the winter.

Coyle called the hydrant tampering a waste of time and manpower for the fire department.

Township police Chief Harry Fruecht called it a criminal offense.

Under the United States Code, anyone convicted of tampering with a hydrant could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison. Civil action could be filed with a resulting fine up to $1 million, Fruecht said.

Whenever a hydrant is opened, the fire department notifies Pennsylvania American Water Co., which owns and maintains all fire hydrants and the water lines that service the hydrants. In Peters Township, there are nearly 600 hydrants, for which the township pays an annual rental fee of $118,000. The water company owns about 3,100 hydrants in Washington County and about 6,500 hydrants in Allegheny County.

As to why the hydrants are being opened without authorization in Peters Township, as well as a few in Bethel Park and Baldwin, Josephine Posti, external affairs specialist for PAWC, said she finds it a “remarkable coincidence” the tampering has occurred after members of the Utility Workers Union of America walked off the job June 18.

No one has been charged, and Posti said there is no direct evidence that any of the union workers are involved.

J. Kevin Booth, president of UWUA Local 537, said 144 union members contend the water company locked the workers out June 18. The members work in customer service, production such as water treatment, and distribution.

He called the water company’s statement about a remarkable coincidence, “reckless speculation.”

“Our members have better things to do than to go around opening fire hydrants,” Booth said July 3.

He went on to say there are numerous reasons that fire hydrants might be opened legitimately that have not been reported.

“As first responders dedicated to public service, utility workers, under no circumstances, would condone any malicious opening of a fire hydrant,” Booth said. “We urge Pennsylvania American Water to end its false insinuations against loyal employees and instead to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a resolution that will finally allow skilled utility workers to return to their jobs delivering essential public services.”

Anyone who witnesses anything suspicious near a fire hydrant is asked to call 911 immediately.

“Let the police deal with it,” said Fruecht, who also serves as the township’s public safety director.

Posti said all PAWC employees carry identification, wear uniforms including safety vests and hard hats, and drive a vehicle with the company logo.

All of the PAWC’s hydrants are checked once a year, Posti said, to ensure each is in proper working order and there is adequate water flow, knowing local departments rely on the water outlet system to fight fires.

Coyle said opening a fire hydrant takes strength and a very large, heavy wrench. He doubts an 8- to 10-year-old would have the ability to open the large nut, sometimes called a Pentagon nut because of its unusual shape, on the top of the hydrant.

Fruecht confirmed Coyle’s statement that there have been four incidents of open hydrants scattered around the township. One report from a property owner came in around 8 p.m., Fruecht said, when the resident witnessed a man drive up in a pickup truck, take something out of the truck bed, open the hydrant and leave.

“This is not a prank,” Fruecht said. He went on to say the township “has been lucky so far” that any resulting low water pressure has not affected firefighters.

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