Hydrant issues in Lake Orion raise fire fears

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Lake Orion — A house fire and resulting lawsuit appear to have kick-started an $8 million plan to restore fire hydrant pressure in this village after nearly two decades.

The Nov. 10, 2015, fire – started when a Tiki bar hut on a wooden deck was being shrink-wrapped for the winter – caused $1 million in damage to a three-story home, though a hydrant was just a few feet away on Sheron Street.

The hydrant was useless, according to officials and a neighbor.

“It’s nothing but an expensive lawn ornament,” sniffed Lyn Meo, who lives next door to what was her daughter’s home, now being rebuilt.

“If it doesn’t work, what good is it?”

A shuttle of tanker trucks, used by Orion Township and other fire departments in areas, eventually doused the flames. No one was injured.

Orion Township officials, including Supervisor Christopher Barnett and Fire Chief Robert Smith, agree fire hydrants with low or no pressure are a problem.

“This has pitted village against township and I don’t appreciate it,” said Barnett, who was named in an insurance company’s lawsuit – dismissed last month – seeking reimbursement for the fire insurance claim because of the uncorrected problem.

According to Barnett, even though the township provides fire protection for Lake Orion, maintaining the hydrants and water pressure is a village responsibility.

“This is something that has been going on for years,” he said. “It is not the responsibility of the township. The village knows this but has tried to make this an issue regarding fire protection when they have not addressed the problem.

Lyn Meo talks with Orion Township Fire Chief Robert Smith about her daughter’s house, which burned in 2015 and is being rebuilt. A hydrant across from the home was not operable.

“It’s a tragedy that is still waiting to happen.”

The problem was so widespread that the fire department resorted to painting hydrants black to signify they didn’t work. The village later repainted the hydrants red, according to Smith.

Lake Orion village manager Joseph Young, who took office two months ago, denied the hydrants were repainted and disputes that the village has failed to address the issue.

It wasn’t until the village commissioned a water reliability study two years ago that officials were aware that systemwide improvements were needed, he said.

“Before then (the village) wasn’t required to do anything,” Young said. “We really can’t explain why anyone would think there were any delays in resolving any problems.”

The village’s head of public services, Jeremy Richert, and former village manager Darwin McClary did not return calls for comment from The News.

But a long-term solution could be near.

The Lake Orion village council voted recently to apply for an $8 million loan from the state to replace 40,000 feet of water pipes and nearly one-third of the town’s 193 hydrants. The village also is seeking a $1 million grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality that would reduce the amount Lake Orion needs to borrow.

The project, which will be done in four phases, will mean higher water rates for Lake Orion’s nearly 3,000 residents through June 30, 2021, according to Young.

“There will be a cost but it will be done in increments over the life of the project,” he said.

Construction could begin as soon as summer 2018, Young said.

Smith’s department responds to about 15 house fires a year across the township, including about three within the village. Fortunately, none has been as large as the November 2015 blaze, he said.

“Part of the problem is residents don’t understand there even is a problem,” Smith said. “They turn on their water and brush their teeth, wash their dishes or take a shower and no problem. It’s not the same when you immediately need thousands of gallons of water to fight a fire.”

Problems go back decades

Documents reviewed by The News indicate village and township officials have known about the problem since 1997 but failed to address it.

Smith said maintenance records dating to 1996 showed that out of 137 hydrants on the village water system, 53 were unserviceable for fire department use, despite the village having switched from community wells to the Detroit water system.

In an April 1997 letter, then-township fire chief Jeff Key told then-township supervisor Colette Dywasuk: “Water had to be pumped out of nearly 1/3 of hydrants indicating a number of leaking hydrants.”

The township agreed to pay the village a $15 maintenance fee for each hydrant that met minimum performance standards for fire protection, according to memos between Key and Dywasuk.

In July 1998, a number of hydrants that failed to provide adequate flows during inspections were marked with black and orange caps under an agreement with the village “to help reduce any potential liability to the Village,” according to a memo from Key to fire department personnel.

In a January 2000 letter to the township supervisor, Key wrote: “Those inspections revealed numerous problems with a considerable number of fire hydrants ... . We offered to pay a maintenance fee for those hydrants that were in good working order but the village manager declined, saying that partial payment would raise too many questions about the condition of the system and possibly expose the village to legal action in the event of a fire.”

That year, after several water system improvement projects, Lake Orion requested another inspection. Of 143 hydrants, 57 needed repairs or could not deliver adequate water pressure, according to a 2001 memo from Key to Dywasuk.

In a February 2002 memo to Dywasuk, Key said the village of Lake Orion was not addressing problem hydrants.

“Since our partial payment in 2001 for those fire hydrants that were functioning properly, the village has not shown any inclination to correct the problems with the remaining fire hydrants... ,” Key wrote.

Three years later, Key reported that the township fire department “has not been advised of any significant repairs or upgrades to the fire hydrants or water supply system in the Village ... since this was last raised in early 2002 ...”

Inspections found a variety of problems. Among them: hydrant access points obstructed by landscaping, caps that wouldn’t come off and, in many cases, low or no water pressure.

Hydrants not required

But, according to experts, no law requires a municipality to provide fire hydrants or fire protection.

Dozens of Michigan communities, including several in Metro Detroit, have community wells and few, if any hydrants.

“It is an individual community decision on what protection is done or not,” said Randall Roost, a member and past chairman of the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit group with more than 50,000 members.

The association establishes standards that most water systems in the U.S. refer to for design and operations.

The Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1976, was amended in 2009 to require that water systems with 1,000 or more customers submit asset management plans to the state by Jan. 1, 2018.

Roost said the amendment could compel communities who have neglected their aging water systems to bring them up to date.

Requirements include maintaining minimum water pressure of 40-50 pounds at all times.

“Communities test their hydrant pressure annually but this will require them to take a hard look at the entire system and any deficiencies that need to be corrected,” Roost said.

Detroit tackles issues

Michigan’s largest city, Detroit, has wrestled for years with hydrant maintenance and water pressure.

Officials are revamping how the city inspects its 30,000 hydrants. Fire officials say the former paper-driven process was bogged down by bureaucracy, resulting in hundreds of hydrants that remained broken for years.

Last year, the Fire Department launched a pilot program with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to update the inspection program. Inspectors from each fire company now have apps on their phones that allow them to flag hydrants that need work, deputy fire Chief Robert Shinske said.

“Since we instituted the new app, hydrants are being fixed at a pace I’ve never seen on this job,” he said.

Water department officials told The News last year that about 5 percent of the city’s hydrants usually need work at any given time. The department fixes an average of 300 to 400 hydrants per week, officials said.

There is no required timetable for correcting deficiencies in a water system, including hydrants, Roost noted.

“Most communities will address any system deficiencies in a timely manner,” he said. “Especially if it results in a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” which can result in penalties against a water system.

“Water is an undervalued commodity, easily overlooked because it is out of sight and out of mind,” Roost said. “Until it is needed.”

Staff Writer George Hunter contributed.