Detroit firefighters say hydrants offline as they battled blaze at home where body found

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Fire officials are questioning why they were not notified of a water main replacement before they arrived at the scene of a house fire on the city's east side at which a person was found dead. 

Firefighters were dispatched at 4:35 p.m. Thursday to a fire at a two-story home in the 12700 block of East Outer Drive. When they arrived, firefighters saw fire hydrants that had been dug up and lying in medians and sidewalks during construction involving a water main replacement, officials said.

A fire started in the William's home at 4:35 p.m. Thursday.

As they attempted to access the water main multiple times on Outer Drive, they realized the water had been turned off. The brick home quickly filled with flames and it was unknown at the time if anyone was inside, fire officials said.

Firefighters always treat fires as if there's a civilian inside and headed inside, said Michael V. Nevin, president of Detroit Fire/EMS Union. 

"Fire doubles every 5-7 seconds," said Nevin, who was on the scene. "Seconds matter in a fire. They kept going from hydrant to hydrant, and there was no hydrant water in the area. I've never seen anything like this."

Nevin released the dispatch recording of the Thursday incident, saying firefighters were desperately calling for water after realizing there was a someone trapped inside.

A person later was found inside. The victim's wife told fire officials he was the only one inside of the home and she had run to the store less than an hour before the fire occurred. 

Fire hydrants were dug-up during street construction and none were available to aid in the fire, officials said.

The three fire hydrants on Outer Drive were dug up and there were at least 12 in surrounding neighborhoods, Nevin said.

Construction to replace the water main on Outer Drive started 11 p.m. Thursday, hours before the fire, according to Detroit water department official.

The water department said it was investigating the incident. 

The incident exposed a "broken vital department communication and mismanagement" that in this incident, may have contributed to a civilian death, Nevin said.

"The water board pulled the water mains from this area without updating the 911/ Brix dispatch system," he said. "This mismanagement creates a catastrophic broken command on scene jeopardizing civilian and firefighter llfe."

Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said construction workers closed the waterline on Outer Drive during the replacement, but only for the block between Wavney and Willingford Street, where the fire occurred.

"The fire hydrants have been working all week; however, Wavney and Willingford have been blocked off while the water main was changed," she said.

Fire hydrants were dug-up during street construction and none were available to aid in the fire, officials said.

Typical protocol, Mobley said, requires inspectors to call into the water department's dispatch yard, which would then notify the Fire Department should a water line be out of service. 

Firefighters also use an online system to see which fire hydrants nearby are working. On Thursday, the system said all the hydrants were accessible, Nevin said.

"Firefighters check all hydrants at a minimum of two times a year for operational status and enter the information in a computer program," he said. "That program should have been updated by the water board. It was not.

"It takes us usually 4-6 minutes to put out a fire... this was very delayed."

Mobley said they are investigating the incident and that firefighters had access to a hydrant 200 feet away from the home.

"The first hydrant that firefighters chose was 400 feet from the fire, definitely in the barricaded area surrounded by caution tape. The second they connected to was in service," she said. "Protocol is to call the Fire Department and typically, we do call and tag them. In this instance, the hydrant that was in service was closer to the house."

Fire hydrants were dug-up during street construction and none were available to aid in the fire, officials said.

Mobley said while the main on Outer Drive was out of service, the main to the north, 200 feet away from the home, was in service and firefighters connected to that second one.

"Detroit isn't designed like other cities," she said. "Typically, fire hydrants are 500 feet apart from another, whereas in Detroit, hydrants are 250-350 feet apart and in this case, there was a hydrant around the corner, completely in service."

However, Nevin said firefighters tried more than five hydrants in the area to no avail and eventually had to use a further hydrant with a later responding apparatus that backed into the scene.

"As far as accusation that first arriving responders should have seen construction is insulting," he said. "A water board person visited a firehouse after the incident to discuss the incident, our firefighters were not interested in his explanation."

Nevin said the incident shouldn't have occurred after the city's insurance safety organization did a thorough investigation last year that identified the city's issues with hydrants.

"Just fix the problem and quit making excuses," he added.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_