Iowa firefighters report water pressure problems at recent fire

Radio traffic shows at least 10 minutes of water trouble as apartment fire burned

Barb Ickes
Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus

DAVENPORT, Iowa — The apartment fire already was raging when the Davenport Fire Department's Engine 3 arrived at 12th Street and Pershing Avenue.

Things did not improve from there.

Several people who were at the scene of the June 20 blaze reported hearing firefighters say they could not get water pressure for their hoses. One onlooker, himself a former volunteer firefighter, can be heard on cellphone video he posted online saying, "There's been multiple — and I mean multiple — hydrant issues with pressure."

When asked about problems getting water on the fire at 1125 Pershing, Davenport officials referred all questions to Iowa-American Water.

A spokeswoman for the water company, Lisa Reisen, initially responded in an email two days after the fire that a company official had talked with the Davenport Fire Department, "...and he stated that, as far as the fire department was concerned, everything worked as it should."

One week later, fire department and water-company brass sat at a table at the downtown Central Fire Station, clarifying that, in fact, water pressure had been a problem at the seven-unit apartment house, which was destroyed by the blaze.

First arrival

The fire at the historic, wood frame house on the corner of 12th and Pershing started on the porch.

Davenport Fire Marshal Jim Morris said the likely cause was either a grill or smoking material. Whatever the cause, it spread fast.

"Engine 3 was first on scene, and the fire was fully involved," Morris said. "We were already behind the 8-ball.

"They were having trouble getting pressure from the hydrant at 12th and Pershing. That was kind of our first hiccup. We knew we had some sort of problem."

At about 3 p.m., an emergeny call was made from firefighters at the scene to the Iowa-American Water station at E. River Drive. Workers at the water plant had kicked on a booster pump at Ripley Street, said Brad Nielsen, vice president of operations at Iowa-American.

In response to the call, he said, a second pump was activated.

Firefighters, meanwhile, were running lines to other hydrants. They tried the one at 11th and Pershing and 11th and Perry, but no luck. It would not be unusual for multiple hydrants to be impacted by low pressure, Nielsen said, because they could have been fed by the same water main.

At the hydrant at 12th and Iowa, Morris said, firefighters tapped into good pressure. They're not sure whether the hydrant was running off a different main or whether kicking on the backup pumps did the trick, or maybe some other step that was taken to try to fix the problem.

But the cause of the hydrant issues now are being investigated, along with the cause of the fire.

Radio calls from the scene

Word of problems getting water to the June 20 structure fire weren't instantly conveyed.

That is the reason a water-company spokesperson initially reported there were no issues.

"Once information started coming in, we got together collectively," Fire Marshal Morris said last week.

For at least 10 minutes, with the fire raging, communications between firefighters on the scene and the Scott Emergency Communications Center, SECC, reveal struggles with water. The first 911 call was made at 2:19 p.m.

The following radio traffic is part of SECC's record:

2:24 p.m. "Need water supply to E3 (Engine 3)."

2:36 p.m. "Hydrant E3 at is no good."

2:38 p.m. "T2 (Truck 2) hydrant no intake pressure."

2:39 p.m. "Contact water company to up the pressure on hydrants 11/ Pershing (and) 12/ Iowa.

2:44 p.m. "T1 (Truck 1) another weak hydrant."

2:45 p.m. "Call water again; need more pressure."

3:31 p.m. "Called IA-American Water about bumping up pressure; they will have to have a supervisor call."

3:34 p.m. "Supervisor for water called; they have all big pumps on and have it at the most pressure they can give for those pumps."

Despite the problems with pressure, Marshal Morris said, firefighters were able to get water on the fire, using the engines that carry 500 gallons in their tanks.

And firefighters carry great lengths of hose for a reason: They sometimes have to lay blocks of line to reach a hydrant. In this case, the one at 12th and Iowa supplied the pressure that was needed.

All eight adults and five children who lived in the home were either away when the fire started or got out of the house without incident.

Finding what happened

The hydrants that failed to supply sufficient water pressure to the Pershing Avenue fire had been inspected in November 2021 and showed no problems, Iowa-American's Brad Nielsen said. All hydrants are inspected annually.

"Now we know," he said of the hydrant problems. "We're taking investigative actions."

The likely culprit is one of the issues that frequently plague water-delivery systems — aging water mains.

"At Iowa-American, one of the challenges we have is our infrastructure is underground," Nielsen said, referring to the difficulty in quickly identifying a problem. "Infrastructure is aging."

He said the company spends about $8 million a year on water main and hydrant replacement, just in Davenport. One employee is devoted full-time, he said, to hydrants, replacing 50 to 80 a year.

In 26 years in the fire service, Morris said, he has come upon an occasional dry hydrant and water-pressure problems like the one at Pershing are "few and far between."

If the issue turns out to be a water main, it could take up to a year to replace because of the related permits that are required. If made a priority, it could be fast-tracked, Nielsen said.

And what would make it a priority?

"If it's jeopardizing public safety," he replied.

In this case, due to the rapid spread of the fire in a 125-year-old wood-frame home, a more immediate supply of sufficient water pressure would not have spared the property, Morris said.

"Everybody was out of the house too," he said. "There were no life-safety issues."


(c)2022 Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, Ill.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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