Bartholomew County is updating where its working fire hydrants are located, after firefighters thought they had access to a hydrant at an October fire but then learned they didn’t.

About half of rural fire departments asked to make visual confirmation of recorded fire hydrants had responded by the first week in January, 911 Emergency Operations Center Director Ed Reuter said.

Although he anticipates the visual checks will resume this spring, Reuter said he doesn’t know when the labor-intensive update will be completed.

When firefighters were sent to a house fire Oct. 24 in Colony Park near Taylorsville, they used data placed in the computer-aided countywide emergency dispatch system to locate a hydrant. That information indicated that a hydrant was across the street from the home.

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When they arrived at Don Purkey’s burning home on Sheffield Court, firefighters located a hydrant exactly where it was supposed to be.

Except it wasn’t a hydrant to be used in fighting fires.

Instead, the device near Purkey’s home was a “flushing hydrant,” used by utility companies for clearing water lines of silt, rust, debris or stagnant water, said Columbus Township Fire and Rescue Chief Rodney Ferrenburg.

The threads on the hoses used by area fire departments don’t fit on a flushing hydrant, and there are no manufacturers of adapters, Ferrenburg said.

While flushing hydrants cost less than fire hydrants, they are useless to firefighters working to keep flames from spreading to nearby buildings and vehicles, Ferrenburg said.

Strong winds that day fanned the flames to a vacant home south of Purkey’s residence, causing about $10,000 in damages to the empty residence.

In addition, three vehicles, including a Winnebago, parked in Purkey’s driveway were destroyed.

Although fire hydrants are required in residential neighborhoods within the Columbus city limits, most of the rural subdivisions in Bartholomew County do not have them, Columbus Fire Department Capt. Mike Wilson said.

The mission of rural water corporations historically has been to provide water for domestic use, not fire protection, said Columbus Utilities Director Keith Reeves. Also, several Bartholomew County subdivisions have no public water supply and rely on wells, he added.

In most cases with county subdivisions, tankers from a number of rural departments are brought in to supply needed water, Wilson said.

But in the Purkey fire, since firefighters thought they had a hydrant, time was lost in getting tankers to the scene, Ferrenburg said.

Information about hydrant locations was placed in the county’s 911 Emergency Operations Center dispatch system about five years ago, after being submitted by county fire departments.

The Bartholomew County Surveyor’s office then validated the exact location of each hydrant before maps of the hydrants were placed into the dispatch computer, Reuter said.

“Since learning of this incident, it is my understanding there may have been some equipment changes to some of the hydrants in the county,” Reuter said.

The Oct. 24 incident appears to be an isolated one, Bartholomew County Emergency Management Director Dennis Moats said. No similar problems have been reported since hydrant locations were placed in 911 emergency dispatch computers, he said.

Most unexpected snags encountered by emergency responders have been limited to malfunctioning or outdated equipment, such as radios, explosive detonation devices and specialized firefighting apparatus, Moats said.

Fire and utility officials say they are unaware of existing records that might indicate the number of flushing hydrants in Bartholomew County. But Columbus Utilities Director Keith Reeves said they are usually installed at the end of a water line on cul-de-sacs and dead-end roads.

While hydrants in the Colony Park neighborhood are maintained by Eastern Bartholomew Water Corp., German Township Fire Chief Robert Drake doesn’t want any fingers of blame pointed at anyone.

In fact, he commended the Taylorsville-based water utility for its long history of assistance to his department, especially in supplying water needed for emergencies and training exercises.

What is essential is that Bartholomew County firefighters have accurate information about fire hydrant locations and other resources available to handle emergencies, Drake said.

It’s also important that local residents don’t get a false sense of security by mistaking flushing hydrants for those used by firefighters, Ferrenburg said.

The easiest way to distinguish between a fire hydrant and a flushing hydrant is that flushing hydrants typically only have one outlet, while fire hydrants usually have two or three.

Since all flushing hydrants within the Columbus city limits have thin, two-inch barrels, they’ve never been mistaken for a fire hydrant, Reeves said.

“They look more like a water meter than a hydrant,” Reeves said.

In Columbus, regulations call for a maximum 800 feet between fire hydrants in all residential neighborhoods, Columbus Fire Inspector Matt Noblitt said.

Businesses are required to install a sprinkler system, and a fire hydrant no further than 35 feet from the water line that feeds the sprinklers, he said.

Flushing vs. fire hydrants

Fire hydrant: Typically has two or three outlets. Used by fire departments to extinguish flames from burning homes, vehicles and other structures, and to protect property. Required in residential neighborhoods within Columbus city limits.

Flushing hydrant: Typically has one outlet. Used by utility companies for clearing water lines of silt, rust, debris or stagnant water.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.