BOSSIER CITY, LA (KSLA) - Bossier City leaders admit someone dropped the ball when firefighters were told "some" of the city's fire hydrants didn't work while responding to fires earlier this year.
Acadiana Mortgage co-owner Kara Lowrie says she had no idea until recently that the fire hydrant in front of her business needs to be replaced.
"I didn't know my hydrant didn't work until I pulled up and there was a bag on it.", Lowrie said. The bags are bright orange and have the words "out of service" printed on them. About a month ago, the fire department changed their hydrant bagging protocol. Now when the fire department rolls up to a scene, they know which fire hydrants don't work.
Bossier City Fire Chief Brad Zagone says the changes come after hydrants didn't work at 3 fires in January and February. Dispatchers are in charge of letting firefighters know which hydrants to hook up to. Chief Zagone says at the time of those three fires, dispatch didn't know those three hydrants weren't working.
While dispatchers weren't aware of the issues, Zagone says the city was.
In 2015, the city hired utility management company, Utiliserve, to inspect all of the hydrants. Zach Raley is a co-owner of Utiliserve. According to him, Utiliserve did know about the issues with the hydrants prior to the incidents. As a result, KSLA News 12 asked Raley, why dispatchers didn't know not to send the trucks to those hydrants? "I know from our end it was reported, but I do not know where it went from there," was Raley's response.
At the time, Raley says protocol did not require Utiliserve to send their report to the fire department or dispatchers. "We would send the utility department the problem and then they would determine if they needed to be bagged or not," Raley said.
However, in the cases of the three fires in January and February, none of the hydrants were bagged.
Because of what happened, Utiliserve now sends the fire department inspection reports, who then loop in dispatchers. "Had dispatchers known, we would have never touched that hydrant, had that fire hydrant been bagged, we would have never used that hydrant," said Zagone.
The Bossier City council took emergency action to extend Utiliserve's contract of half a million dollars in September after Zagone told them about the fire hydrant failures. But by that time, 7 months had passed since the last hydrant snafu. KSLA News 12 asked Zagone why he waited so long to bring it in front of the council and public. "Well I think the whole time, it's been an ongoing process to figure out what we need to do and everything else," Zagone answered.
Utiliserve's new contract gives them the duty of not only inspecting the hydrants but also fixing them. A month ago, the city also gave Utiliserve the power to bag the hydrants themselves. "That way it speeds the process up," said Raley.
In September, when Utiliserve was given extra money to repair the hydrants, 125 hydrants had issues and 20 needed to be bagged and replaced.
That means 4.5% of the 2750 hydrants were faulty and less than 1% needed to be dug up and replaced.
Utiliserve currently has five employees fixing the hydrants. We asked Raley if he felt he had enough manpower to do the job, he said he felt confident of it.
The company must fix all hydrants by the end of the year, so that it doesn't affect the department's Class 2 fire rating. "If there is a problem that needs to be addressed, it needs to be addressed in that same year because you will lose all of your points," Raley told the council in September.
In 2014, Bossier City was downgraded from a Class 1 to a Class 2, receiving only 85.56% on their total assessment. The city needed 90% or more to qualify for a Class 1 rating. During the city's 2014 assessment, the city received 1.95 out of 3 points when it comes to how often hydrants are inspected and their condition. The points are given by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana (PIAL). PIAL then adds up the points to score a city's fire protection rating every five years. Bossier City's next PIAL survey will happen in 2019.
PIAL Executive Director A.J. Hebert explains how the fire rating impacts homeowners. "They utilize that as one factor in determining rates to be charged for fire insurance in the affected area," said Hebert.
According to the Louisiana Department of Insurance, a homeowner who owns a $150,000 home has to now pay $995 a year in premiums under a class 2 fire rating, instead of $935 with a class one. That is a $60 difference. "We don't order anyone to take any action, to improve a grading, that's up to the elected officials and the people who are affected by it," said Hebert.
As for the non-working hydrants and why they were allowed to fail, a city spokesman pins the blame on "failures within the Utilities department." The Utilities Department has since been privatized by Baton Rouge based company, Manchac. 27 employees were fired on July 5, 2016, and 13 vacant positions were eliminated as a result of the public-private partnership.
Lowrie is now glad to know the broken hydrant in front of her business will be fixed by the end of the year. "Albeit a little late, to me it still says progress, as long as we are moving forward with that, as a business owner, that does give me some comfort," said Lowrie.
Residents hope if their lives or property are in danger, that the changes are enough to make sure all hydrants work when firefighters need them.
We requested the exact locations of the faulty fire hydrants, so homeowners and business owners can know if they live near one.
But a city spokesman says due to security reasons they are not required to disclose those locations.
So how does Shreveport shape up when it comes to faulty fire hydrants?
Shreveport has a class 1 fire rating. The city was assigned 90.58% in August of 2012. The city received a 2.70 out of 3 on their PIAL grading for inspections. Bossier City's score was a 1.95 for hydrant inspections.
Currently, out of 7,600 total hydrants in Shreveport, 20 need repairs and 17 need to be replaced. Combining the two numbers, that's less than half of one percent of hydrants needing attention.
Shreveport's next PIAL survey will happen in 2017.