Parkville fire forum draws heated discussion

About 20 Parkville residents last week attended a public forum to hear from the fire district and water utility about recent fires, with a disconnect evident between what neighbors and witnesses saw and what the officials reported.

Responses to several fires over the last few months, most recently on Main Street, have drawn criticism and concern from Parkville residents, and led them to ask questions of city government, which arranged the meeting.

City administrator Joe Parente introduced Southern Platte County Fire Protection District deputy chief Dean Cull and Missouri American Water field services manager Jody Carlson. Since July, Parente and the board of aldermen have discussed the incidents at meetings and Parente reported he had been in contact with the fire district and utility to pursue information on fire hydrant testing.

The Main Street incident occurred in the early morning hours of Friday, Aug. 3 near 5th Street and garnered the attention of local media, with at least two Kansas City television stations reporting firefighters had trouble controlling the blaze. Southern Platte Fire and the Kansas City Fire Department responded to the call.

The detached garage and guest house of the home of Piropos Restaurant owners Gary and Cristina Worden caught fire, which quickly spread, damaging their home and other neighboring properties. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries due to twisted ankles on the steep yard and it was widely reported that low water pressure was to blame for what witnesses considered a delay in containment.

Much of downtown Parkville — and many of the older areas of the city — were built with 2- to 4-inch water mains instead of the current standard of 8-inch mains. This sometimes leads to problems with getting water volume quickly.

Main Street resident Soheil Anderson spoke to the board about the incident in late August, requesting the city consider changing its stance on granting zoning variances that allow structures to be built very close together. 

At the Wednesday, Sept. 19 public meeting, Cull characterized the Aug. 3 fire as a routine event.

“In our minds, we didn’t have any water pressure issues or volume issues,” Cull said. “We’re aware of the 4-inch lines so we call Missouri American Water on the way to increase the volume.”

Cull said the routine call was made on the way to the fire, but neither he nor Carlson had the call log available at the meeting. Water pressure, he said, is generated by the pumper truck itself, so the fire department need only get sufficient water volume from the hydrants to have enough water.

“I was standing there and the firefighters were frantic,” Anderson said, disagreeing with Cull’s assessment that the situation was under control.

Several members of the audience spoke up to affirm Anderson’s version of events. A man who listened to scanner traffic that night also reported firefighters stating there wasn’t enough water.

A fire earlier this summer in Riss Lake was controlled within about 20 minutes, but the Main Street fire took about 40 minutes. Audience members questioned why it took twice as long to control the fire on Main Street.

“Every call is totally different and every fire is totally different,” Cull said. “That’s why you can’t compare the 20 minutes to 38 minutes. Fire is different every time.”

A factor in that, he said, was the ages of the structures involved and their construction. Additionally, Riss Lake didn’t need a water volume boost as it already has modern water lines. Age is also a factor in the water lines themselves, which can break under increased pressure.

Audience members pointed out that was the case in August as well, because a hydrant up the street from the fire leaked profusely for weeks following the fire before Missouri American Water crews came to fix it.

Carlson said the utility tries to repair fire hydrants within 48 hours of a reported problem, and was unaware of this situation. Residents said they had reported the leak to Missouri American Water, and later turned to the city for help when it wasn’t fixed.

Director of public works Alysen Abel confirmed that the city got involved and contacted the utility as well and it had taken them two weeks to get a response.

Carlson said he would look into this, and would locate the logs of fire hydrant testing, which he says is done once a year. Residents also disputed this, saying they hadn’t seen hydrants tested for years.

After fielding questions for close to an hour and a half, Cull said some of the concerns may be due to citizen perception of firefighting tactics, where the fire district’s main concern is protecting life, with property protection coming in secondary.

“You may not like this, but No. 1 of what we do is life safety,” Cull said. “You can’t be replaced. Everything in those houses that are burning down can be replaced. If the perception is that we weren’t doing our job — we did it. No life was lost.”

At the close of the meeting, Parente said the city would continue to pursue the hydrant testing logs and continue communications among the public, fire district and water utility.