By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Sandy Springs officials are investigating the cause of a fire at The Falls apartments and why a hydrant on the site did not work properly.

A recent fire at The Falls apartments on Spring Creek Lane is raising questions about how the city of Sandy Springs inspects fire hydrants to ensure they are working.

The fire occurred the night of July 12 and burned 20 units at the apartments off Brandon Mill Road, behind City Hall, Sandy Springs Fire Marshal Jeff Scarbrough said.

“The building, when we arrived, … was well engulfed through the roof,” Fire Chief Jack McElfish said. “If they would have had sprinklers in the building, they would have probably had very little loss.”

McElfish said a hydrant on the site didn’t properly work, which delayed some operations. Firefighters had to hook up to another hydrant on Roswell Road, about 1,000 feet away. Firefighters usually use two hydrants during a fire at an apartment complex, the chief said.

“The bottom line is the hydrant was broke,” McElfish said. “Whether we broke it or it was broken, we don’t know. We are still looking over that.”

The matter is confused because the city doesn’t own the hydrant.

Sandy Springs, in fact, does not own any hydrant in the city. Approximately 3,300 municipal fire hydrants found in the public right of way and called “public” hydrants by city officials, actually are owned and maintained by the Atlanta Watershed Department.

Sandy Springs, however, has budgeted for inspections of the public hydrants twice a year. Each hydrant goes through a 40-point inspection that consists of flushing, lubing, painting the hydrant with reflective silver paint and marking its location with a Global Positioning System.

But hydrants on private property, like the hydrant in The Falls, are the responsibility of the property owners to inspect and maintain. Sandy Springs has no record of how many private hydrants are in the city, Scarbrough said, but this year started a program to gather that information.

“We probably need to take it upon ourselves to look at the private hydrants and make sure that they are in working order,” Dist. 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries said. “Let’s don’t have this happen again. What can we do moving forward to ensure that all of them in Sandy Springs are working, whether they are private or public?”

McElfish said the city mandates annual inspections of hydrants at apartment complexes but the city doesn’t inspect the hydrants.

“To get their business licenses, [property owners] have to show that they have met their requirements to have their hydrants inspected,” McElfish said. “The city does not inspect the private hydrants. The owners of an apartment complex hire a certified inspection company, and we have a listing of 15 certified companies.”

Scarbrough said an investigation at The Falls will determine the cause of the fire and when the fire hydrant was last inspected.

“We are chasing some loose ends down,” Scarbrough said. The work should conclude, he said, by the first week in August.

Scarbrough said he hasn’t found any documents that prove there were prior issues with the hydrant. “The latest record we have from them, which is May 22, showed everything was fine,” he said. “I’m basically asking for some backup documentation to show me we didn’t have any issues with that specific hydrant.”

Risk management administrator Jeffrey Fletcher with Lyon Apartment Companies, the company that manages The Falls, said July 27 that the company did not want to comment.

If the apartment owners are found to be in violation of the city’s apartment inspection ordinance, the city will take them to court, city spokeswomen Judy Parker said.

Fries suggests that the city inspect private hydrants in the same manner as public hydrants. She said the private hydrants also should be mapped with the Global Positioning System.

“You would want everything marked so when all hell breaks loose, you will be able to know exactly where the hydrants are,” Fries said. “They should all be in working condition.”