SALISBURY TWP., Pa. - Inadequate fire hydrants hampered firefighting at three homes destroyed in the last two years in the same hillside neighborhood of eastern Salisbury Township, Lehigh County, according to township fire officials.
They complained some hydrants in that residential neighborhood are useless because they lack sufficient water pressure. Those hydrants are part of Bethlehem's water system, which serves that section of the township.
"The fire hydrants give people a false sense of hope up there," said Eastern Salisbury Fire Chief Dave Tomcics.
The neighborhood is just north of the intersection where Susquehanna Street, Emmaus Avenue, Broadway and Seidersville Road meet.
Firefighters most recently faced low water pressure from hydrants when they fought Monday's house fire in the 1700 block of Elinor Street, township commissioners learned Thursday night.
Commissioner Joanne Ackerman said it's terrible to give people a false sense of security that fire hydrants near their homes will work when needed.
"We have no recourse to help these people or to get Bethlehem to do more?" asked Commissioner Debra Brinton.
"We've talked to them before; they've not done anything," said Atty. John Ashley, the township solicitor. But Ashley promised to review the township's agreements with Bethlehem regarding supplying water to that part of Salisbury.
"It's their water system," said the solicitor. "The agreements will say what rights we have."
"It's something we should look into," said James Brown, president of the five commissioners. "We can reach out to Bethlehem once again. We'll see what we can do. John will look into it and see what the policy is and we'll take it from there."
Commissioners were encouraged by fire officials to at least convince Bethlehem to label hydrants where water pressure is almost "non-existent."
"Now we don't even know which ones they are," said Tomcics. "It's a guessing game."
The chief said some hydrants in that area are useless. "The pressure is terrible."
He said those hydrants should be painted red, so firefighters know not to bother attaching hoses to them.
The fire chief said Bethlehem's water department has been asked to provide his department with a list of which hydrants are good and which are bad in that area, "but we haven't gotten it."
"If they don't work, take them out," said Ackerman. "Then at least you know where you stand."
The city did install a booster pump station in that neighborhood to end low water pressure in homes, which had been a problem for decades. But that did not increase pressure in the neighborhood's fire hydrants, according to John Andreas, the township's public works director.
In July 2014, when Bethlehem officials advised Salisbury commissioners they were going to install that $100,000 booster pump station, firefighters warned it would do nothing about low water pressure in the fire hydrants.
Tomcics said two of the three house fires occurred in that neighborhood after Bethlehem officials advised Salisbury commissioners about that improvement.
When township fire officials told Bethlehem more water pressure is needed in that area to fight fires, they were told it would not happen because the cost would be astronomical.
"If you're going to supply water to a certain area, you supply water not just for taking a shower but for firefighting," said Ackerman."It's all part of the responsibility."
Referring to Bethlehem, she said: "I don't think they're holding up their end of the bargain."
The fire chief said Bethlehem water officials have been asked to provide information after hydrants are checked. Bethlehem says the hydrants are tested, but the fire department is not being given the results of that testing, explained Tomcics. So firefighters don't know what flow and water pressure each hydrant provides.
Tomcics estimated 10 fire hydrants are in that neighborhood, which he said is in the township's First Ward. He estimated at least 80 hydrants are in that ward.
He said another home was destroyed by fire in that area last December and a third about a year and a half before that. He said those two fires were on Ritter and Wistar streets.
The lack of sufficient water pressure "absolutely" hindered the department's ability to fight all those fires, said Tomcics. "If you don't have water you can't put out fire."
Because a hydrant was in front of one of those homes, people had asked him why it was not used to fight the fire. He responded: "There's nothing coming out of it. It's at the top of the hill."
He said so little water pressure was coming from a hydrant at Monday's fire that "you could literally squeeze the fire hose." He explained there should be so much pressure that it's impossible to squeeze a fire hose.
The chief compared trying to get water from those hydrants to sucking out of a straw. "We were basically sucking the water from the hydrant up Elinor."
Tomcics said his department may run 1,000 feet of fire hose up a street from the nearest fire hydrant, then find out that hydrant does not have enough water pressure to help fight a fire.
He indicated some streets in that neighborhood are so "tiny" that once a water supply hose is laid, there is no room for a tanker truck to get up that street to provide water at a fire.
He said two water-carrying tank trucks now are dispatched to any second alarm fire in that neighborhood, "just because we know the pressure is terrible."
He said the cause of Monday's house fire still is under investigation. "The house was on fire, we had two cars on fire and the brush behind the house was starting to catch on fire," said Tomcics. "It's a complete loss."
Allentown, PA 18102