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Pa. fire chief points to problem with water mains after fire kills 5

Jeannette firefighters had to rely on tankers to fight a fire that claimed four children and an adult

By Rich Cholodofsky

JEANNETTE, Pa. — Jeannette fire Chief Bill Frye said the city’s aging waterlines impacted firefighters’ ability to extinguish an overnight blaze that killed a father and his four young children in a Guy Street home.

Both Frye and Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County officials confirmed Wednesday a 6-inch water line feeds into the fire hydrants near the fire scene. That and the fact that water needed to be pushed through lines up a hill contributed to the issue, Frye said.

“We laid out line immediately from the hydrant down here. The hydrant wasn’t giving us enough water to make it up the hill,” he said.

Firefighters were able to tap into a second hydrant down the road and through the use of multiple tanker trucks eventually got enough water to fight the blaze.

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

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

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

Inspection reports reviewed Wednesday by the Trib revealed the hydrant at Guy and Second streets was last inspected in June. It was found to be operational and in need of no repairs, according to the inspection.

An 2020 inspection noted the hydrant was hit by a vehicle but that 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 starts in April.

“We are very diligent about the maintenance of our fire hydrants,” said Brian Hohman, the authority’s deputy director. “Hydrants are a regional issue, and it’s all about the volume of water that is based on the diameter of the pipes that service them in the area.”

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

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

That’s where the problem lies in Jeannette, according to Frye, who said firefighters are aware they cannot get enough pressure from some hydrants, especially ones placed on steeper grades such the plug located near the Guy Street house fire.

And especially not when firefighters needed to use a hose that shoots out 1,000 gallons per minute to battle the flames.

“There’s no other option over there,” he said. “Every hydrant is on the same system, the same grid.”

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

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

Frye said Jeannette used that information in fighting the Guy Street fire, but city leaders insist the town’s aging infrastructure has to be addressed.

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

“We ran three lines and fought a pretty well-involved fire that day with no issues with that one hydrant,” he said. “So I asked (the authority) to investigate to see if there was any obstructions or maintenance issues with the hydrant.”

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