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Published: Thursday, 6/18/2009

Toledo firefighters didn't have map showing water supply

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Firefighters responding to the blaze that destroyed a stately older home in Toledo's Westmoreland neighborhood last week did not know that they had only a 4-inch waterline to draw from.

And according to a minute-by-minute chronology, firefighters may not have found a more productive 6-inch line that was available just two blocks away until almost an hour after arriving.

Firefighters have blamed inadequate water supply as one of the factors in the loss of the home at 1945 Mount Vernon Ave. Owners Barbie and Herman Harrison have criticized the fire response, and neighbors complained in a heavily attended City Council hearing Tuesday that they fear their homes are not safe from fire.

Asked for his reaction to the fire yesterday, mayoral candidate and former Fire Chief Michael Bell said the firefighters did the best they could under "a perfect storm of circumstances."

"I think the fire department did everything they could," Mr. Bell said. He said the most important outcome is that no lives were lost. "They probably had no idea there was a 4-inch line because those are very rare," said Mr. Bell, who was city fire chief for 17 years until he left to become state fire marshal in April, 2007. He resigned that job to run for mayor this year.

Both he and current Chief Michael Wolever said the fire was far advanced by the time firefighters were dispatched.

"I believe it was probably in the walls, and although it looked like something small to the homeowners, firefighters said it was already in the attic and in the roof. That tells me it was going for a while," said Mr. Bell, who was at the fire about an hour after it started. He was called by a Westmoreland resident.

Charles Nix, a next-door neighbor of the Harrisons, said firefight-

"I believe it was probably in the walls, and although it looked like something small to the homeowners, firefighters said it was already in the attic and in the roof. That tells me it was going for a while," said Mr. Bell, who was at the fire about an hour after it started. He was called by a Westmoreland resident.

Charles Nix, a next-door neighbor of the Harrisons, said firefight

ers extinguished a big fire in the attic of his home in 1980, when there was plenty of water.

"You can't blame the firefighters. They didn't have any pressure. I don't think it's the fire department's fault. They didn't have any trouble putting my fire out, and that was 30 years ago," he said.

Another neighbor, Ethel Walden, said she now felt that the hydrant in front of her home at 1931 Mount Vernon has been giving her a false sense of security.

"Our insurance company gave us a discount because there's a hydrant right out front. All these years I've felt safe, but not anymore," she said. "If there's no water, then it's very dangerous."

She, too, holds the firefighters blameless.

"If they didn't know about the waterline, you can't blame them," she said.

According to a fire department incident history, the first three engines and ladder truck were on the scene five minutes after being dispatched at 3:56 a.m. Two more engines assisted at

4:02 a.m. and another two at 4:14 a.m. In all, 30 firefighters were at the scene.

No second alarm was issued, which Chief Wolever said was normal procedure.

Firefighters tapped into a hydrant virtually in front of the house, but the chronology shows them complaining of inadequate pressure at 4:21 a.m. and looking for another main to "lay into" at 4:55 a.m.

Firefighters don't carry maps that show the sizes of the water mains.

Mr. Bell said if he is elected mayor he would seek to have the locations of 4-inch lines identified in the dispatchers' computerized mapping system so that information is immediately available to firefighters.

Twenty-three miles of Toledo's 1,167 miles of waterlines are 4-inch-diameter pipes. Mount Vernon is serviced by a 4-inch main, while the rest of Westmoreland appears to be serviced by 6-inch mains, according to a city water main map.

Mr. Bell said if residents of the historic Westmoreland neighborhood off Bancroft Street east of Parkside Boulevard want their lines upgraded to the now-standard 8-inch lines, they could have that done, with the cost assessed to them.

"Those lines can actually be enlarged, but it is going to cost some money, which would be an assessment on the people in those neighborhoods," Mr. Bell said, saying that was his understanding when he was chief. "Anything can be fixed. It's a question of whether people want to pay for it."

Tom Kroma, the director of public utilities for the city of Toledo, said the city has a $2 million annual fund to upgrade waterlines and that 4-inch lines are replaced based on a variety of factors, including history of water main breaks and if there are pavement or sewer line repairs already planned.

Democratic candidate for mayor Ben Konop said it would be unfair to levy a fee or tax on homeowners to replace waterlines.

"Our taxes are high enough now. That shouldbe enough to keep us safe in our homes," Mr. Konop said. "Mike Bell's comments are a forecast of what a Bell administration would like in terms of a lack of accountability to taxpayers.

"He was a city bureaucrat for two decades, and I wonder if this issue ever crossed his mind in terms of lack of water volume," Mr. Konop said.

He said his campaign will canvass areas of the city

with 4-inch lines to make them aware of a problem they didn't know existed.

He also criticized Mr. Bell for not attending the public hearing Tuesday night.

Mr. Bell said he did not know about the hearing.

In a prepared statement, Democratic mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski said, "Every citizen is entitled to proper waterlines to protect their families and their homes today without being required to pay additional fees or taxes."

Staff writer Carl Ryan contributed to this report.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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