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Number of broken Joliet fire hydrants anyone's guess

Wayne Horne | 6/19/2014, 8:47 a.m.
According to information provided by the city under a Freedom of Information request, only 3,020 fire hydrants of the 8,460 ...
This fire hydrant at the corner of Taylor Street and Midland Avenue is one of the 109 that Joliet officials know for certain is not working. Karen Sorensen

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Wayne Horne

The city of Joliet began its “annual hydrant testing” this week, according to a media release from City Manager Jim Hock’s office. The timing of the release is both welcome and curious. Here’s why…

During a city council meeting in April, Councilman Jim McFarland asked a question regarding out of service fire hydrants in Joliet. McFarland had been told by fire department personnel that hundreds of fire hydrants were not working properly. He asked for a timeline on hydrant repair. The following day I followed up on McFarland’s request and submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for records indicating the number and location of all out of service hydrants in Joliet and when they would be repaired. It seemed like a simple request.

Under state law, responses to FOIA requests are due in five business days. When I asked for the information on the sixth day, it was not ready. Then, less than 90 minutes later, it was -- as I related in a previous column. A coincidence, no doubt.

The information received did not include a timeline for repair but it did list the 109 out-of-service hydrants. The following week at a Public Service Committee meeting, it was reported that hydrants were repaired in the summer as work schedules allowed. Fire Chief Joe Formhals further explained that hydrants were reported for repair when they were flushed and tested in the spring and fall. Formhals stated all hydrants were flushed and tested every two years.

Since I did not receive the repair schedule I originally requested, I submitted another FOIA to the water and fire department on June 6 for that information and flushing dates for this year. I received a response a week later, but no schedule for flushing was included.

The water department report I received showed 143 hydrants were repaired and 42 replaced between 2012 and June 2014. For the rest of 2014, the report said, 20 hydrants would be inspected, 34 repaired and six replaced. A footnote to the report said more hydrant work would be scheduled pending the outcome of flushing and inspections by the fire department. The water department is unaware of hydrant failures unless they are inspected. They are inspected when they are flushed.

The report from the fire department said 952 hydrants were flushed and inspected in 2012 and the same was done for 2,068 hydrants in 2013. The two-year total is less than half of the 8,460 hydrants in the city.

According to Formhals, there were legitimate reasons more hydrants were not inspected, including weather and water main repairs. The projected hydrant testing for this spring is in zones 7 and 9, and the fall schedule will do testing in zones 3, 6 and 8. A zone is defined by the location of the Fire Station. By the way, spring ends Friday.

This Monday, I spoke with Jon Hall, a supervisor in the water department, and Chief Formhals regarding the submitted reports. Hall is in charge of coordinating hydrant flushing with the fire department so hydrant repairs can be scheduled. No mention was made during either of these conversations regarding a schedule of hydrant testing locations, dates or times. However, the city manager’s office released a detailed media release with times and locations for hydrant testing at 3:30 p.m. that same day. A coincidence, no doubt.

The one question that still remains unanswered regarding fire hydrants is: How many fire hydrants in Joliet are inoperable?

The answer is that no one really knows. The Fire Department only inspected 3,020 hydrants from 2012 through June 2014. The water department repaired or replaced 185 hydrants. That amounts to 6 percent of the total hydrants inspected. Using the law of averages, if all hydrants had been tested and previous testing experience is applied, the total out of service hydrants exceeds 500.

Since the fire department did not inspect most of the hydrants over the last two and a half years, there is no way anyone could have an accurate count of out of service hydrants.

My question is: “Why couldn’t someone in charge just have said that?”

Stay tuned…