When the Sedalia Fire Department was dispatched to the 500 block of West Fourth Street on Thanksgiving morning, they were faced with the perfect storm: older homes in incredibly close proximity to each other, yards full of dry leaves ready to catch fire, 35 mph wind gusts and a vacant back lot acting as a wind tunnel.
The firefighters also spent several minutes searching for a larger water main to get enough water pressure to battle the large blaze, but were forced to hook hoses onto hydrants connected to lines as small as four inches. While it wasn’t the only obstacle facing Sedalia firefighters last week, SFD, the City of Sedalia and the Sedalia Water Department are working together to make sure small water lines don’t cause problems in the future.
The three entities met earlier this week to discuss problems and solutions, both long- and short-term, regarding small water lines in older areas of Sedalia. Newer portions of the city have lines that are eight and 10 inches or larger, while older areas have lines that are anywhere from four to eight inches, said SWD General Manager Charlie Brosch.
“We have excellent fire protection in this town, this fire just happened to happen in an area that has a little smaller water mains than what we would like to see there,” he said. “It’s not like Sedalia as a whole has bad fire protection, there’s just certain areas where you have smaller water mains that have been there for a long time and those probably need to be up-sized, four-inch to six-inch or six-inch to eight -inch.
“… They had water, just not as much as they needed. When the wind blows like that you can’t put enough water on it to put it out. We were giving them all the water we could. They tagged one four-inch line twice — they had two hoses off one four-inch line. You can imagine how much flow would be going through that.”
SFD Deputy Chief Greg Harrell noted that the problem of older, small water mains isn’t limited to Sedalia.
“The infrastructure is very old, parts of town are over 100 years old,” he said. “The city is looking at areas with us together, trying to determine areas that need improvement due to age, looking into various ways to work on improvements to see what mechanisms are in place. It’s a problem and the city is aware of it. Like any other community, as the nation gets older, infrastructure — bridges to water lines, highways, streets — everything is getting older. It’s one of those things we have to be looking at.”
Harrell said SFD contacts SWD when it is on a fire call to assist with boosting water pressure, however, those operators have to also be concerned about how much water a pipe can handle. On Thanksgiving, SWD provided as much water pressure in the area as possible without busting a water main.
Part of the problem is that SFD isn’t always aware where larger lines are located, and in a fire situation they don’t have time to search. Brosch and Harrell said they are working to address that issue as well.
“What we’re going to try to do is mark fire hydrants — color code the caps indicating gallons per minute flow each would put out,” Brosch said. “If they had been color-coded, (the firefighters) would have found the 10-inch main (near Vermont), which not knowing that was a disadvantage for them. In the spring, we’ll flow all the hydrants in the city and color code all the caps, that’s first step we’re going to do. Then we’ll have an engineering study done of the entire area and get scenarios of how to increase water flow in these (older) areas that really need better fire protection.”
Harrell said SWD will also provide SFD with water main maps to carry in the command vehicle and keep at the station to study. They will work with city staff to get the maps on computers.
Brosch said the engineering study is the first step to a long-term solution.
“You always need to bring engineers into something like this, we can’t just start taking water mains out without knowing exactly what size and location to use,” he explained. “They can do a study and say we need six-inch here, eight-inch here. There are several options we can look at. One is changing trunk lines to a larger size without changing all the smaller ones.”
City Administrator Gary Edwards noted that the Water Department is a separate entity from the City of Sedalia, something that was decided years ago. Because of this separation, the Sedalia City Council does not have any legal authority over the Public Works Board. Any decisions regarding fixing or replacing water mains, or increasing the water rate to compensate for such a project, would be voted on by that board.
“Charlie right now is gathering some price information,” Edwards said. “… He’s going to get some prices on what it’s going to cost, and then I anticipate the mayor, and possibly council, will want to go to the water board and ask them what can be done to solve the problem, but we have to get the cost numbers first, find out what is it going to take.”
Undertaking a large project like replacing water lines would most likely result in a rate increase for customers, just like what happened with the ongoing sewer project. Edwards said Brosch didn’t anticipate the overall cost would be as high as the $30 million sewer project, but “that was just a guess.”
“It all comes down to, are those dollars worth the safety that is needed in areas where there are four-inch lines?” Edwards said. “Are those dollars worth the potential loss of life that could occur in those areas where water has the potential of being low because of four-inch lines?”
It will be a long process for such a significant project, and Harrell assured Sedalia citizens that SFD will continue to work hard to protect them.
“The city is working toward fixing all this stuff, determining what the situations are and where we have to go from here,” Harrell said. “I wish I could snap my fingers and have it fixed, but we will continue to make do and do what we can to improve things. … We will continue to do the best we can.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1482 or @NicoleRCooke.