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Labor shortage limiting fire hydrant repairs in Gastonia

A WCNC Charlotte investigation identified 115 "damaged" fire hydrants that are awaiting repairs. Some work orders date back to 2019 and 2020.

GASTONIA, N.C. — The City of Gastonia blames a labor shortage for its failure to repair more than 100 damaged fire hydrants, including some that haven't worked in years. A WCNC Charlotte investigation found 20% of Gastonia's pending work orders are more than a year old and include hydrants first reported damaged in 2021, 2020, and even 2019.

"Please help. We're so frustrated!"

Barbara Helfst ended her June 21 email to WCNC Charlotte with a plea. She and her husband bought their Belmont-area home in 2021, but for the last year, the fire hydrant in front of their house didn't work. After she reported a leak in June 2022, crews placed an "out-of-service" sign on the hydrant.

"I'm just tired of it," Helfst said of the wait. "I would like to see them out here fixing whatever caused the leak, so the hydrant could be used again."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Barbara Helfst

In the months that followed, the City of Gastonia blamed the delay on a lack of staff.

"Unfortunately, due to understaffing our fire hydrant repair list has grown substantially," the city said in an August 2022 email. "These will of course be addressed when staffing is available."

Despite Helfst's concerns, which emails show were eventually echoed by firefighters, the hydrant sat unrepaired.

"No more response to the emails," she said. "(It feels) like they don't care."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Hydrant in need of repair near Barbara Helfst's home

While she waited, the city assured her that other hydrants in the neighborhood would provide adequate protection in the event of a fire. WCNC Charlotte measured and found at least one hydrant within 500 feet and two others a little farther away. Whichever firefighters picked, they'd still have to hook up their fire hoses and drag them to Helfst's house, which would take precious time.

"I think it would take them a good distance to get water over here in case of a fire," she said worried. "I don't want the house to burn down."

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A repair list of 115 damaged hydrants

City records show other hydrants have taken even longer to repair. In all, the City of Gastonia's hydrant repair list includes 115 damaged hydrants, generally identified by firefighters during routine testing. According to work orders, firefighters can't even open some of those hydrants, while others need to be replaced altogether.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Nate Morabito asks questions about Gastonia's fire hydrants in need of repairs

"How is that acceptable?" WCNC Charlotte asked Gastonia Director of Public Utilities Brian Potocki.

"It's a combination of having to address fire hydrants along with all the other duties we're responsible for," he responded.

Potocki said the crews responsible for fixing fire hydrants are the same ones tasked with water and sewer repairs. With more than a third of those jobs vacant and a steady workload, he said Gastonia has to prioritize projects where there's an immediate safety concern, someone's property is at risk or their service is disrupted.

"It's a case-by-case basis," he said. "We work very closely with our fire department on hydrant priorities and if those hydrants are deemed as a high priority, then those get moved up on the list and get repaired a lot faster."

Potocki said broken hydrants are usually lower on the list unless they're labeled a priority by the fire department because there aren't other working hydrants close by.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Brian Potocki

"I would ask the public to not be overly concerned," Potocki said.

According to the city, most of the hydrants on its list still work, but just need minor repairs.

The "damaged" hydrants make up 2.6% of the city's total inventory. Usually, 1-2% of the city's hydrants are "flagged for various maintenance repairs," according to a spokesperson.

Lack of responsiveness

“Shouldn't the public expect responsiveness in that situation?" WCNC Charlotte asked.

“The public should expect us to be responsive to all of our water and sewer needs and I believe we are responsive," he replied.

After previously flagging several hydrants, emails show the Town of Cramerton, whose hydrants are maintained by the City of Gastonia, followed up directly with Potocki in May 2023 about the city's lack of responsiveness, asking for "some response...and a timeline." In one email to the city, dated March 6, 2023, Cramerton Fire Chief Lance Foulk noted a hydrant reported roughly a year ago still hadn't been repaired.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Cramerton Fire Department

"It would be helpful for the effective operation of the FD to hear back on the status of these issues," Chief Foulk told the agency in another March 6, 2023 email, referencing other hydrants, including one that wouldn't turn on.

"Does it bother you when homeowners or firefighters feel like you all haven't been responsive?" WCNC Charlotte asked Potocki.

"Well, we always try to be responsive," he replied. "There are always areas for improvement and we'll look for those areas."

Potocki said the city hopes to eventually assign a dedicated crew to fire hydrant detail once staffing improves. He said the city is actively recruiting, hoping to fill 15 field maintenance crew positions.

"I don't think this is unique to Gastonia," he said. "I think it's something that a lot of people are facing around the country."

For comparison, the City of Monroe reports three vacancies within its hydrant repair crew, which is almost a 16% vacancy rate. According to Monroe, two of its 1,574 fire hydrants are currently out of service. One of those two has remained out of service since November 28, 2022, according to the city.

"Over 99% of our hydrants are in service and available when needed," Communications Specialist Bradley Lucore told WCNC Charlotte. "We have communicated our plans for repair with Monroe Fire Department."

The City of Charlotte, meanwhile, told WCNC Charlotte more than 99% of its hydrants are currently in service as well. According to the city, 153 hydrants were out of service as of Monday. Charlotte has a total of 18,300 hydrants in all and said most non-emergency repairs are completed within 16 days, on average, while emergency repairs usually take 24 hours.

Charlotte's vacancy rate, which includes newly budgeted positions, is 15%, according to the city.

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Gastonia requests patience

"What we ask the public to do is be patient with us as we work through this shortage and we're going to try to get to those hydrants just as fast as we can," Potocki said.

The city didn't move nearly fast enough for Barbara Helfst, but within days of WCNC Charlotte asking questions on her behalf, a crew repaired her fire hydrant.

"I was surprised. I was happy," she said. "They need to fix all the other ones now."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Barbara Helfst

The City of Gastonia has declined to share the addresses of the 115 damaged hydrants, "because of possible threats to personal property (buildings, cars, etc) from potential arson or other fire-related issues."

"Thank you for your help. We appreciate it so much," Helfst said. "I think I just opened up a can of worms."

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

WCNC Charlotte is committed to reporting on the issues facing the communities we serve. We tell the stories of people working to solve persistent social problems. We examine how problems can be solved or addressed to improve the quality of life and make a positive difference. WCNC Charlotte is seeking solutions for you. Send your tips or questions to newstips@wcnc.com.

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