Private contractors endanger lives, homes by mishandling hydrants in Detroit

This house on the west side stood no chance with a faulty hydrant. Steve Neavling/MCM
This house on the west side stood no chance with a faulty hydrant. Steve Neavling/MCM

This is part of our ongoing series about the city’s mismanagement of fire hydrants and the devastating impact on neighborhoods

Private contractors who collect millions of tax dollars for construction work in Detroit are causing an alarming number of fire hydrants to become inoperable, placing residents and property at grave risk, a Motor City Muckraker investigation has found.

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The city of Detroit issued about 480 permits last year for private users to tap into hydrants but did nothing to ensure the fire plugs were properly used.

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The result: Countless hydrants have been rendered inoperable in a city that leads the nation in arsons. So far this year, firefighters have been hindered by at least 43 faulty hydrants, causing significant damage, according to dispatch reports.

“Per the Fire Department’s request, contractors are now fully responsible for the clearing of fire hydrants that are used during the demolition process,” John Roach, spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan, told me in an email. “Initially it had been the Fire Department’s wish that contractors notify them when a hydrant was used so the Fire Department could clear it out.  Given the city is taking down 100-200 houses per week at peak times, the Fire Department feels that having the demo contractors responsible for clearing the hydrants would be more efficient.”

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This hydrant protects two theaters and a restaurant on Woodward near Midtown. Steve Neavling/ MCM
This out-of-service hydrant protects two theaters and a restaurant on Woodward near Midtown. Steve Neavling/ MCM

Contractors are using the hydrants more than usual because of M-1 rail construction on Woodward and the demolition of 100 to 200 houses a week. But many workers lack the tools, knowledge or desire to properly open and clear out the hydrants, causing them to freeze or become stripped, according to five firefighters interviewed for this story.

Related: 18 notable buildings without a working hydrant

As the city braced for one of the coldest winters in history this year, no one monitored the private use of hydrants. At it turned turned out, many contractors failed to properly drain the hydrants, causing them to freeze and become inoperable. Other hydrants were stripped by contractors who didn’t have the proper tools, firefighters said.

Take Woodward Avenue, which has been bustling with contractors working on water mains, M-1 rail and site preparation for the new Red Wings arena. At least 17 hydrants were inoperable in February and March along a 1.2 mile stretch of Woodward from downtown to Midtown. Those hydrants protect apartment buildings, theaters, restaurants, retailers, banks and one of the city’s oldest religious institutions, the 1866 Central Methodist Church.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which is responsible for maintaining and fixing the hydrants, took a week to respond to our questions. When it did respond, the department declined to discuss why the hydrants were inoperable and wrongly asserted that all of the hydrants along Woodward were thawed and back in service in late February. Our inspection found 17 hydrants still out of service on March 12. This week, eight hydrants were marked as “out of service” in front of apartments and businesses.

In the neighborhoods, the situation is worse. Hundreds of hydrants are broken or out of service, causing a nightmare for firefighters using malfunctioning equipment and aging rigs.

“It’s really frustrating,” said one firefighter, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because firefighters have been threatened with discipline for talking to the media. “We’re finding two, three hydrants out, and that means we have to stretch (our hoses) for several blocks. By then, the house is gone. You can only hope to save the neighboring dwellings”

Private contractors pay $370 to use hydrants for residential demolition and $1,390 for commercial demolition.

A contractor, Adamo, works next to an out-of-service hydrant. Steve Neavling/MCM
A contractor, Adamo, works next to an out-of-service hydrant. Steve Neavling/MCM

Earlier this month, we spotted a demolition crew using a hydrant in the North End to demolish a house. Two days later, firefighters marked the hydrant as “out of service” because it was frozen and not properly closed. The two nearest hydrants were also out of service, with one of them on its side.

The crew worked for Adamo, a Detroit-based company that receives no-bid contracts to demolish houses and buildings damaged by fire.

Of the hundreds of faulty hydrants in Detroit, it’s impossible to know how many were caused by contractors because the city doesn’t monitor them.

The Mayor’s Office said it’s making changes, requiring contractors to report the locations of the hydrants they use. That information will be stored electronically and be accessible to the Fire Department, DWSD and the Building Authority.

“The city can then inspect and verify that the hydrant has been properly cleared,” Roach said.

Since our series began on March 5, the city has pledged to inspect all 30,000 of its hydrants.

This is part of our yearlong examination of every fire in Detroit. Please consider a contribution so that we can continue to monitor the beleaguered, long-neglected fire department.

Other stories in the series:

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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