April 25, 2010 By Elaine Pittman
Infrastructure built during President Abraham Lincoln's administration in the 1860s still provides Washington, D.C., with water -- this includes the water citizens use every day and what firefighters tap into to keep residents and property safe. The district's water assets include approximately 1,800 miles of sewer lines, 36,000 valves and 9,000 public fire hydrants.
Until 1999, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) managed these assets the old-fashioned way, too: on paper. The authority had 40 computers and a single e-mail address, said CIO Mujib Lodhi. WASA needed modernization, especially for the community's safety.
Although mapping water assets on paper showed authorities what size water main hooks up to a specific fire hydrant -- which dictates water flow available from the hydrant -- that information couldn't be accessed quickly during an emergency response. According to a Washington Post article, firefighters waited 40 minutes at a July 2009 residential fire before a WASA representative arrived to direct them to larger water mains. The low water pressure on some hydrants forced firefighters to try hydrants on other blocks and bring in reinforcements from a neighboring county.
"Our fire hydrants were in extreme disarray -- over the years they had been neglected. No maintenance and limited replacement were done on the fire hydrants themselves," said Lt. Sean Egan, hydrant inspection coordinator for the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services department. "So we [worked] with the water authority, started building systems and trying to figure out how to correct these measures, implement testing measures, and collect data and exchange it with the water authority."
To help combat information sharing issues and provide WASA with up-to-date information about its water assets, the authority collaborated with IBM's Global Business Services and Research to integrate analytics with asset-management software. Now WASA and the fire department share hydrant information in near real time with databases updated hourly.
In 2006, WASA started a fire hydrant replacement program to better understand its inventory, which includes about 24 different hydrant makes and models -- only two of which are currently acceptable for use in the field. More than 40 percent of the hydrants, Egan said, were made at a local prison that later closed, leaving them without replacement parts.
The fire department launched a sweeping inspection program requiring the district's public hydrants to be inspected twice per year, tracking hydrant locations, makes and models, and any deficiencies. Before WASA implemented the new technology, inspectors used hard-copy records, which didn't feed into the water authority's work order management system. Now when Egan is inspecting fire hydrants, he enters the information into a handheld device that wirelessly sends the information to the water authority. "They're able to take the foundation of the information that was supplied by the fire department, digest it into their work order management system, and analytics would then flip it upside down -- look at it in different perspectives to see where common deficiencies are," he said.
The information allows WASA to see common deficiencies in hydrants, and target which need to be replaced or upgraded, or if an area needs additional hydrants. It also feeds directly into the authority's work order management system and Google Earth, where the information is published for firefighters and citizens to see. The public is shown a limited amount of information online, like if the hydrant is in service, and when it was last inspected and serviced.
The fire department, however, can view more in-depth information to aid its efforts, and can access it online or using the handheld devices. The district's fire engines also have been outfitted with computer screens, so when responding to a call, firefighters can view the Google Earth map to identify which hydrants will best suit their needs if, for example, the situation calls for a high water flow