McMURRAY – In his more than 30 years as the fire chief in Peters Township, Dan Coyle can recall only one time a fire hydrant in the township was opened without permission. However, in the past week, the fire department was called out four times to shut off open hydrants scattered throughout residential areas in the township.
Each time a hydrant is opened, the fire department must respond, shut off the water and test the hydrant to ensure it is working properly. Coyle called the hydrant tampering a waste of time and manpower for the fire department, as well as a hazard to public safety.
Township police Chief Harry Fruecht called it a criminal offense. Under federal law, anyone convicted of tampering with a hydrant could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison. Civil action could be filed with a resulting fine up to $1 million, Fruecht said.
As to why the hydrants are mysteriously being opened in Peters Township, as well as a few in Bethel Park and Baldwin, Josephine Posti, external affairs specialist for Pennsylvania American Water Co., said she finds it a “remarkable coincidence” the tampering occurred after members of the Utility Workers Union of America walked off the job June 18. PAWC owns and maintains the fire hydrants and water lines that service the hydrants.
No one was charged, and Posti said there is no direct evidence any union workers are involved.
J. Kevin Booth, president of UWUA Local 537, said 144 union members contend they were locked out by the company June 18. The members work in customer service and production, such as water treatment and distribution.
He called the water company’s statement “reckless speculation.”
“Our members have better things to do than to go around opening fire hydrants,” Booth said.
He also said there are numerous reasons that fire hydrants might be opened legitimately that have not been reported.
“As first responders dedicated to public service, utility workers, under no circumstances, would condone any malicious opening of a fire hydrant,” Booth said. “We urge Pennsylvania American Water to end its false insinuations against loyal employees and instead to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a resolution that will finally allow skilled utility workers to return to their jobs delivering essential public services.”
Anyone who witnesses anything suspicious near a fire hydrant is asked to call 911 immediately.
“Let the police deal with it,” said Fruecht, who also serves as the township’s public safety director.
In Peters Township, there are nearly 600 hydrants, for which the township pays an annual rental fee of $118,000. The water company owns about 3,100 hydrants in Washington County and about 6,500 hydrants in Allegheny County.
Posti said all PAWC employees carry identification, wear uniforms including safety vests and hard hats, and drive a vehicle with the company logo.
Coyle said opening a fire hydrant takes strength and a very large, heavy wrench. He doubts a youngster would have the ability to open the large nut on the top of the hydrant.
Fruecht confirmed Coyle’s statement that there were four incidents of open hydrants scattered around the township. One resident reported seeing a man drive up in a pickup truck at about dusk one evening, take something out of the truck bed, open the hydrant and leave.
“This is not a prank,” Fruecht said. He went on to say the township “has been lucky so far” that any resulting low water pressure has not affected firefighters.