Sounding the alarm to rescue rusty, faded fire hydrants

I have offered to paint the one near my house. Pennsylvania American Water Co. hasn't responded.
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The fire hydrant at Deer Run and Meadow Ridge drives, Derry Township.

Hershey Volunteer Fire Co. has a gorgeous new home after an extensive renovation and expansion at 21 W. Caracas Ave., Derry Township.

By comparison, plenty of Derry Township fire hydrants are looking pretty shabby. Owned by Pennsylvania American Water Co., which has its main office near Hersheypark, these hydrants are faded and rusty.

That’s the case with the one near my home, in the Deer Run development. I’ve offered to scrape the rust and give the hydrant a fresh coat of paint.

My overtures to Pennsylvania American — the first by phone, the second via email — have gone unheeded. The automated email response on April 21 said I should expect a phone call within 24 hours.

Drip, drip, drip. I’m still waiting. [Update: On May 3, I received a phone call from a nice man who identified himself as being with Pennsylvania American. He said he would be painting the hydrant near my home, suggesting it would be in the near term.]

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Southpoint neighborhood

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Stone Creek neighborhood

‘Quick identification by fire departments’

In January 2015, Pennsylvania American issued a news release, asking residents to clear snow from fire hydrants.

“Significant snow accumulation can cause fire hydrants to become buried and make it difficult for firefighters to quickly locate hydrants,” an official said. “By keeping their neighborhood hydrants cleared of snow, our customers will help firefighters easily locate them and access water quickly, saving valuable time to potentially save lives and property.”

The news release noted that Pennsylvania American “maintains” approximately 36,000 fire hydrants across the commonwealth. That’s a lot of fire hydrants to paint, but this isn’t just about aesthetics.

If Pennsylvania American isn’t taking care of the fire hydrant near my house, or the one near your house, what confidence should we have with the rest of the water system?

That’s not a question I thought of on my own. It is based on a comment made in 2012 by the president of West Virginia American Water, one of Pennsylvania American’s sister companies. It appeared in this story about West Virginia American painting 5,700 fire hydrants in that state.

“While solely cosmetic in nature, this project is important to our customers because it will increase the visibility of fire hydrants for quick identification by fire departments during emergency situations,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, said in a news release. “It also improves the overall appearance of the only prevalent water infrastructure visible above the ground, which should give our customers confidence that we are also taking care of and investing in the much larger percentage of our water infrastructure that is buried beneath the ground.”

The flip side to that line of reasoning is that faded, rusty fire hydrants should make us wonder about those parts — the larger parts — of the water system we can’t see.

Pennsylvania’s largest water utility

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Fire hydrants in bright red paint adorn American Water’s home page.

Pennsylvania American promotes itself as the largest water utility in Pennsylvania, serving approximately 2.1 million people.

Its parent company is American Water, which dates to 1886 and is the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company. American Water trades on the New York Stock Exchange and had 2015 operating revenues of $3.159 billion.

That could buy a lot of red paint.

Perhaps Pennsylvania American could work with a community group, as the city of Bend, Ore., did, according to this video:

Or Pennsylvania American could emulate another sister company, New Jersey American. In 2002, that company gave West Orange Township $7,000 to hire teens at a rate of $8 per hour to paint more than 1,000 fire hydrants.

Meanwhile, my offer to Pennsylvania American still stands. Paintbrush at the ready, I’m prepared to rescue the faded fire hydrant near my home.

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