A hole in the sidewalk near a Dunkin’ Donuts at 6060 Roswell Road marks where a fire hydrant was knocked down by a vehicle nearly a year ago and remains missing. And for the last four months of 2015, if firefighters had needed water to battle a blaze there, they would have found a fire hydrant across the street gone as well.

Such long repair times and uncertain inspections for the city’s 4,000 public and private fire hydrants are an ongoing concern for Sandy Springs fire officials. Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders is now gearing up a tighter, more accountable inspection system. Step one: bringing hydrant inspections in-house instead of using private contractors, as the city has done since its founding.

“The 2016 inspections will be done by the Sandy Springs fire department,” Sanders said. “That way, I know all hydrants have been touched and have been inspected.”

That will mean “more accuracy, more accountability,” Sanders said, adding it will also give firefighters hands-on knowledge of where the city’s hydrants are in case they need to find them in an emergency.

But those inspections are where the fire department’s direct control of the crucial safety devices ends. The 2,910 hydrants on city streets are actually owned by the city of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, which can take months to make repairs.

Sanders called that situation a “challenge,” though he added he is not aware of any recent fire where firefighters had trouble finding a working hydrant on a public street. The city has a good number of hydrants and Atlanta provides good water pressure throughout the system, he said.
Sanders said there is currently no system allowing Sandy Springs to track and verify hydrant repairs submitted to Atlanta Watershed. “That’s the process we’ve got to fix with Atlanta,” he said.

As of Jan. 13, there were 102 Sandy Springs hydrant repairs pending, according to Atlanta Watershed spokeswoman Lillian Govus. That’s about 3.5 percent of all public hydrants.
Govus said the department immediately repairs hydrants rated as “emergency items.” That means “ones that are actively spewing water and creating a safety hazard,” or that are in a location that does not have another hydrant “within the proximity,” an undefined measurement.

The rest are “first come, first served,” Govus said, and Atlanta Watershed aims to repair or replace them within 45 days. However, it can take much longer, she acknowledged. She noted that the department has 14,000 hydrants system-wide to maintain and that Sandy Springs has a permit process that can take two to five weeks.

The two knocked-down hydrants on Roswell Road, in front of businesses and office towers, are examples of long delays. The one at 6075 Roswell was reported damaged on Aug. 21 of last year, but was not fixed until Dec. 21, Govus said.

And the still-missing hydrant at 6060 Roswell? That was reported on Feb. 3, 2015, Govus said. “That one’s been in the queue for a very long time,” she acknowledged, adding that it is “currently at the top of the list and just needs to have a crew assigned.”

Govus could not explain the delays on replacing those two missing hydrants or why the repairs are taking different amounts of time. Both are considered non-emergency repairs because of other nearby hydrants, she said, and individual complications with repairs could be a reason for delays.

Meanwhile, there are 1,094 hydrants on private property that the city doesn’t inspect. Instead, property owners must have an annual inspection performed by a city-approved contractor and placed on file. Gaps have appeared in that system before. In 2011, firefighters at two separate major fires at Sandy Springs residential complexes faced broken hydrants that delayed their efforts.

Sanders said the city still has challenges identifying the point person at some multifamily residences who is responsible for hydrant inspections, as managers change or homeowner association heads move. He said Sandy Springs Fire Rescue is preparing an educational campaign about the need for such inspections.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.