As you may have heard, there is a moderate drought occurring in North Jersey. And as a result, we asked our local customers to voluntarily conserve water. But this drought is also a safety issue; firefighters need to have enough water and water pressure to fight a potential fire. Water is the best weapon to kill a fire. What steps do we take to prepare for a fire?
We met with our New Jersey field operations, to learn more on the subject. United Water serves a population of 800,000 people in New Jersey and maintains 16,000 fire hydrants throughout the state.
How do we prepare for a catastrophic event like a fire?
Health and safety issues are our top priority. In case of a catastrophic event (storm, fire, accidents, etc.), it’s our duty to provide a constant supply of water to support officials on the ground. United Water follows the National Incident Command System (ICS), a protocol on how to handle and respond to an emergency.
We also have a “Red Book”, which is our Bible for emergencies and contains all of our procedures, protocols, equipment and contact info. This way if an incident commander calls in from the field, asking for pumps or tankers, we can give them whatever they need quickly.
To always be prepared, one of our most important tasks is fire hydrant maintenance: we repair and replace them when needed. Every year, our inspectors go out and test every single one of our 16,000 fire hydrants.
We also run drills internally and externally: our Safety and Security Department presents a catastrophic scenario and we have to develop a plan to fix it.
What do we do during a fire?
The fire department does not notify us when there is a fire in one of the counties we serve. But we can see something is going on from our control room that operates 24/7 at our water treatment plant. We witness an abnormally large pull in our water supplies which means emergency services is pulling a large volume of water to extinguish the fire.
When we hear about a fire, we will go and support the incident commander. The fire department uses a tremendous amount of water to “drown the fire”; the water demand increases 10 to 100 times more than the normal use. Our role is to support the firefighters and strategically move the trucks so they don’t run out of water supply. With our technical support, we can redirect more water to the area (that will increase the volume of water available) or ask them to use a different hydrant.
The key in an emergency is communication. A lot of people are involved and we need to ensure there is a good flow of accurate information. That’s why our team on the ground is in constant communication with our operators in the treatment plant. We also maintain good relationships with the State fire departments. Once a year, we invite them to our plant for a tour to educate them about our distribution system.
Once the area is safe, our inspectors have to check the fire hydrants to ensure they are operational. We also enter the houses impacted by the fire and shut the services off. This way, we can protect anybody that has to go inside the houses (police, electric company etc.).
There might be some consequences for our customers living nearby: such as low pressure or discolored water. Since the fire department has to use a large amount of water, the water velocity in the pipe increases. The discolored water results from the natural deposit found in the pipe; it is safe to drink and usually doesn’t take more than an hour to clear up.