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Spurred to action, Utilities repairs broken hydrant 

On Feb. 27, a driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran over a fire hydrant outside Sybil "Sunnie" Ford's home on North Chelton Road just south of Maizeland Road. She heard the crash and wasn't surprised to find that the vehicle flattened a fire hydrant out front, putting it out of commission.

That made Ford and her neighbors nervous, considering the nearest hydrant is a block away. So she called the city. In fact, she says she called the city so many times she lost count.

"Honey, we've been calling everybody," she says. "We called Utilities over and over and over again."

It wasn't that the city didn't know the hydrant was kaput. Someone erected an orange-striped sawhorse over the konked-out fixture as a warning.

Finally, though, last week, the same day the Independent called the city to ask about the hydrant, a work crew showed up and replaced the hydrant in a couple of hours.

The neighborhood's wait for a new fixture serves as a reminder of how challenging it can be to keep more than 16,000 hydrants across the city working — a job handled by city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities.

Turns out, Ford's damaged hydrant was one of 10 to 20 that are sidelined at any given time. Maintaining the hydrants, which costs Utilities $617,000 a year, is handled by the same crews that maintain the city's 1,900 miles of water pipes.

Most neighborhoods have a hydrant on every block, so when firefighters find one not working, as they did in January 2007 when the Castle West Apartments fire killed two people, they simply go to the next hydrant.

Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey says hydrants that are out of service are bagged to signal firefighters of their inoperability. He also says a program is underway to identify broken hydrants on electronic maps that firefighters scrutinize as they race to fires.

Although hydrant-hopping due to non-working hydrants can rob firefighters of crucial seconds in hooking up to a water source to fight a blaze, Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says the hydrant outage on Ford's street posed no problem.

"There's adequate protection in that area" even without the busted hydrant, he says. "There are two other functioning hydrants 500 feet north and south of this location to provide water in the event of fire," Berry says in an e-mail.

The repair took a long time, he says, because the Chelton Road hydrant was a 1960 model for which parts aren't available. When an old hydrant goes bad, Utilities must either custom-manufacture parts or salvage parts from discarded hydrants.

"We currently salvage any useable parts from other hydrants being replaced in the system and use those parts on older hydrants whenever possible," he says.

Vehicles seem to be gunning for the city's hydrants. Berry says last year crashes took out 39, and 10 more have been damaged by vehicles so far this year. Of those, only two remain on the blink. But that's a fraction of the hydrants that fail or get damaged in some way every year. Since January, 251 hydrants have been repaired or replaced, he says.

All that said, Ford doesn't buy the idea she's just as safe relying on a hydrant a block away as she is on one out front of her house and she's upset over the delay, though she's happy it's finally been repaired.

"Look how long it took," she says. "We were at the bottom of the list."

zubeck@csindy.com

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