Weekly Feature

2017-12-27 / Front Page

Local fire chief concerned with lack of ECWA communication


Water line maintenance crews from the Erie County Water Authority work to repair a series of leaks that occurred on Dec. 15 on East Overlook Drive. Water line maintenance crews from the Erie County Water Authority work to repair a series of leaks that occurred on Dec. 15 on East Overlook Drive. When the Erie County Water Authority was addressing a series of water main breaks that occurred on East Overlook Drive on Dec. 15, crews worked around the clock to make the appropriate repairs.

While residents of the area were without running water, the Water Authority brought in a contractor to replace approximately 1,500 feet of unlined cast iron pipe that was in failing condition, and line maintenance crews worked to mitigate the impact of the 13 leaks.

The response would otherwise be lauded as quick and efficient, but Michael Schreiber Jr., chief of the Harris Hill Fire Company, wants answers to why he wasn’t notified of the issues occurring in his fire jurisdiction.

Schreiber’s criticisms highlight what he believes is a pattern of miscommunication on the part of the Erie County Water Authority, one he thinks could one day make a bad situation worse if emergency personnel are unable to traverse town streets because of the previously unknown presence of water line crews.

“For us to make a turn down that street only to find out that it’s closed could add four minutes to our response,” Schreiber warned.

Schreiber says the Water Authority had disconnected water to fire hydrants on East Overlook for three days without making any notification to the fire company, which he addressed in a letter sent to the agency during the summer, requesting that the Water Authority implement a policy that would require it to send communication to local fire departments that their crews would be in the area.

In September, as shown via letters and emails obtained by The Clarence Bee, the Water Authority replied to Schreiber, writing that when the agency sets out to do repair work, it hires an engineering consultant and contractor to design, build and coordinate with the appropriate parties. During the construction phase, the contractor is responsible for coordinating the work with all local agencies.

The Water Authority called the lack of communication between contractors and towns “disappointing.”

According to the Water Authority, the agency responds to more than 1,000 leaks per year. To notify the public, the ECWA created an alert system, which people can enroll in by texting “WATER” to 1-844-716-3292. When a leak requires a lane closure, a text message is sent to all registered users identifying the work.

“I’ve subscribed to that system.

I’ve done what they told me to do. Unfortunately, with the series of leaks, the first notification from that system was made on Saturday morning [Dec. 16],” Schreiber said.

The ECWA seemed receptive to Schreiber’s calls for policy implementation, indicating via a letter sent to Schreiber in November that when a new project is scheduled, an engineering consultant will “provide a pre-construction meeting, giving notice to all municipalities, utility companies, fire districts.” The purpose of the meeting would be to inform of the scope, schedule and purpose of a project.

Yet Schreiber remains adamant that no such meeting was offered for the East Overlook repairs. In email correspondence regarding the Dec. 15 leaks, Steven Denzler, a distribution engineer for the ECWA, wrote to Schreiber, “When water lines are down for short periods, we typically do not notify everybody since the line is typically restored in a few hours. The situation on Overlook is not typical, and the pattern of leaks has only recently become apparent.”

Denzler added that as each leak occurred, the ECWA sent crews to repair the leak and restore service. In some cases, he said, poor quality lines were replaced to try to bring about a permanent solution. Schreiber, however, said he believes that the water outage was significant enough to warrant communication from the ECWA, noting reports from residents in the area that they had no water service for nearly three days. In email correspondence with Schreiber, the ECWA disputed that assertion.

The Clarence Bee contacted Sean Dwyer of Zeppelin Communications, which handles media inquiries for the ECWA, seeking comment from the Water Authority. According to Dwyer, this is the first instance in which he has heard of a disconnect between the agency and a municipality. Dwyer added that he was waiting for a response from ECWA officials. The Bee did not receive a response as of press time.

Dave Bisonette of the Clarence Emergency Management Office agrees with Schreiber over what he believes is an unnecessary lack of communication that could potentially result in a disastrous situation.

“I would really like to see more real-time communication between the Water Authority and our first responders,” he said. “In today’s day and age, we have quick media tools at our disposal, so to be getting information 24 hours later, that seems unacceptable.”

Bisonette added that the disconnect can be remedied if only the ECWA were to handle communication like town highway departments when roadwork needs to be scheduled.

“We plan accordingly, and standing orders are left for that fire department to respond in a certain manner to accommodate that problem,” he said. “But, if the fire department is not made aware of those interruptions, that’s when we can lose precious time responding to the community’s needs.”

For Schreiber, the gap in communication goes beyond a lack of notification when ECWA line crews will be working on streets his fire trucks might need to traverse. When water lines are replaced, Schreiber says he has noticed that contractors do not alert local fire dispatch of the new addresses for the hydrant locations.

In his letter, Schreiber addressed such concerns following a water line replacement on Meadowbrook Road in which fire hydrants were moved. From the perspective of the Town of Clarence, which pays an annual fire hydrant maintenance fee to the Water Authority of $106.80 per hydrant, the absence of communication is unacceptable, Schreiber says.

“In a snowstorm, we have a list of addresses that tell us exactly where the hydrant is going to be, so that if it’s buried under a 4½-foot snowbank, we can dig for it,” he said.

Schreiber says he has requested a sit-down meeting with officials from both the Water Authority and the Town of Clarence so that a policy can be codified and any potential disaster averted. He has not yet received a response, and Schreiber worries that the residents of Erie County could wind up paying the price.

“In a situation in which there’s no water, we would be able to adapt a plan quickly. The concern is how many homes are going to be lost,” Schreiber said. “We just want clearer communication so I don’t have to explain why four houses burned when only one should have.”

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