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The critical function of water in fighting fire risk

Water is a crucial element in fighting fires, which in turn is a major concern of property insurers. A community’s water supply or lack of one is something insurers need to consider to properly manage risks and underwrite policies. In this article, we examine three major impacts on water for firefighting: the relationship between fire departments and water providers, handling areas that lack water sources, and managing hydrants under severe winter conditions.

The fire department/water provider relationship

An inoperable hydrant is just one worst-case scenario that can confront firefighters at the scene of a fire.

Imagine the following scenario: Firefighters are dispatched to a building where flames are shooting from a second-story window. Firefighters arrive, begin to evaluate potential water sources, and spot a fire hydrant on the street. They head toward it to establish a water supply—and realize it’s not operational because it’s completely consumed by a tree and vegetation!


An out-of-service hydrant is just one worst-case scenario that can confront firefighters at the scene of a fire. Blocked hydrants, closed underground valves, and broken hydrant stems are all conditions that can substantially hinder a fire department’s ability to mitigate damage to property, protect occupants in surrounding buildings, and provide for firefighter safety.

Which agency responsible?

Which agency was responsible to maintain or replace fire hydrants in that community, the fire department or the water provider? Did one agency fail to notify the other of a potential issue? Were proper maintenance steps ignored?

An inoperable hydrant is a major cause for concern for both agencies, regardless of which agency was responsible. Firefighters rely on water providers and their water supply systems to perform as expected during chaotic and life-threatening situations. Conversely, water providers rely on fire departments to keep facilities in working order as much as possible because irregular or incorrect usage can also damage hydrants.

A close working relationship between fire departments and local water providers is crucial to avoiding such situations. Ideally, the two agencies should cooperate on hydrant placement, maintenance, inspection, and flow testing.

Unfortunately, at times there is friction between water providers and fire departments. Leaders of both agencies must address questions of liability and responsibility to make sure that issues such as inoperable hydrants are limited and that there’s a process established to manage out-of-service hydrants efficiently.

Community fire suppression is dependent on multiple agencies and engineered fire protection systems, including fire alarms, sprinkler and standpipe systems, fire department apparatus, hydrant systems, and communications systems. It requires cooperation between agencies, strict equipment maintenance, and attention to applicable national standards to ensure the best outcome on any given day. Insurers need to know that fire departments and water providers are working together to protect communities.

Areas lacking water supplies

Protecting areas without water supplies or hydrants is multifaceted, especially in a large fire district. There’s a need to plan for firefighting resources, determine where to get water for fighting fires, and work to make buildings as fire-safe as possible.

First, fire departments and communities need to create alliances with private water purveyors and homeowner associations that operate water systems. It’s a good practice for the department to assign a fire marshal and deputy fire marshals as liaisons to manage those relationships. Such alliances provide insight on how to maintain reliable and resilient service with limited budgets and staff, all while being accountable to citizens and states for water availability, quality, and environmental impact.

To counteract the effect of firefighting operations on accountability, line personnel need to notify water purveyors when arriving at working fires. That ensures there’s adequate fire flow, helps track and account for water loss, and minimizes the effect on customers.

Next, fire departments need to work closely with building officials to determine the water supply for fighting fires. Together, they must determine which structures require sprinkler systems, need on-site static water sources, or can substitute with alternative construction standards. Districts should identify areas without hydrants and coordinate with the dispatch center to make sure correct resources are assigned.

In rural areas where water supplies are limited, fire departments need to implement robust alternative water protocols and maintain large water tender fleets. In Tualatin, Oregon, for example, the district decided against the traditional method of placing individual tenders at several rural stations throughout the service area. Instead, it sited teams of two water tenders at specific stations selected for the best overall coverage and response times. Crews respond with both tenders in tandem, which puts more resources on the road quickly.

For every working structure fire in an unprotected area, the initial response includes four tenders to begin water shuttle operations, allowing the first engine crews to perform an initial and effective fire attack. That’s a great example of a community designing a system that best suits its needs.

Maintaining hydrants in severe winter conditions

Fire hydrants located in geographic areas that experience severe and prolonged winter climate conditions need additional attention to prevent failure. Making sure of their year-round operation requires constant maintenance and a comprehensive fire-flow testing program. Homeowners, businessowners, firefighters, and property insurers all have a vested interest in fully functioning fire hydrants.

Some areas of the northern United States can experience harsh winter climates with freezing temperatures lasting six or seven months of the year. Such areas must have functioning and reliable hydrants, and that starts with good engineering standards.

For example, minimum pipe bury depth in Bozeman, Montana, is six-and-a-half feet, but the water provider buries most hydrants nearly seven-and-a-half feet. Equally important is a good drainage bed of at least a half cubic yard of wash rock. Proper hydrant drainage is critical.

In such lengthy cold seasons, districts need to perform hydrant inspection and maintenance during the winter months. One strong recommendation is to follow American Water Works Association (AWWA) M17, Fire Hydrants: Installation, Field Testing, and Maintenance, along with generally accepted engineering standards. Perform a dip test to check for proper drainage. If the hydrant fails and the test indicates water or the depth of the barrel is reduced due to frozen water, repairs must be made as quickly as possible.

Severe weather districts should conduct a hydrant inspection and flushing program annually, including a pressure test of each hydrant. In the warmer months, a good practice is to fire-flow test one-third of the system each year to comply with the AWWA five-year testing requirement. Districts should also conduct hydraulic modeling on the distribution system.

Another important factor is snow removal. In Bozeman, snowfall averages 85 inches each year, so access and visibility are imperative. The city clears hydrants of snow by shoveling, using a backhoe, or both. Crews clear three feet around the hydrant and usually dig a four-to-six-foot opening in front of the hydrant. All this is coordinated with the street department so plows don’t bury a hydrant that was just cleared. Some highway hydrants are set back 40 to 50 feet from the curb, helping reduce excessive snow coverage from heavy-duty plows.

Insurers need to know that fire service areas are prepared to deal with water supply issues. This is one reason why Verisk’s Public Protection Classification (PPC®) program assigns 40 points to water supply out of its 105.5-point total. Visit our website for details on our Peril and Incident Report that provides additional insights on fire hydrant locations and proximity to the risks you are underwriting.

Stephanie Ruscansky is community hazard mitigation manager, Tom Weber is national director of community hazard mitigation services, and Anthony Zampella is national water resources manager at ISO/Verisk. Note: This article was compiled from articles previously published in the Spring 2017 edition of Community Fire Protections News, a publication for the fire service and insurers from Verisk’s ISO Community Hazard Mitigation.

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