Washington, D.C., Tracks Fire Hydrants with Analytics and Asset-Management Software

Washington, D.C., tracks water assets to streamline inspections and aid firefighters in emergencies.

by / April 25, 2010

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.

Tracking Hydrant Inspections

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

hydrant. Before using the system, firefighters examined paper maps to get information about hydrants, but the information could be outdated or inaccurate.

"To the firemen out on the street, they don't see it on the front end," Egan said. "It's the information on the back end that's being able to give our commanders better information to make wiser tactical decisions immediately."

He said national inspectors of water and fire departments have described the systems used by the agencies as state of the art, and that they've never seen such aggressive measures in an inspection program.

"We started looking at things differently since 9/11 and trying to figure out what is best for the citizens of the District of Columbia," Egan said. "And we're dealing with the archived history of this country -- the Smithsonian, the federal government, the White House, U.S. Capitol building, all the monument icons -- and it stands on its own merit, what we are doing. It's quite impressive."

Enterprise Analytics

Since WASA has changed from being a one e-mail address, technology-deficient agency, it's now leading the nation in the use of IT to aid customer service and predict potential problems, and its use of analytics and asset-management software benefits the entire district, not just the fire department. Lodhi said WASA is the largest utility in the country to have implemented automated meter reading (AMR) infrastructure, which automatically collects data and transfers it to a central database. This changed the district's ailing billing system from antiquated to cutting edge -- Lodhi said previously the authority didn't know its customers' names and bills were addressed to "Dear Occupant."

The AMR project cost about $36 million, he said, which included a stand-alone system and new meters deployed districtwide. The analytics portion isn't costing the district much, Lodhi said, because IBM is covering the cost of 10 to 15 researchers contributing to the project. "We expect that we will start seeing returns coming to us and really resolving true business issues in the next three years."

Now that WASA has had a complete makeover -- from billing to asset management -- it provides better customer service and has enhanced understanding of its water assets. "I personally believe in three As: acquire data, which we were doing; analyze the data; and act on it," Lodhi said.

By using analytics, WASA can better understand the district's residential and commercial water use based on time of year, location and amount used. The goal is to merge business with science, which Lodhi said will allow WASA to create a better rate model and predict infrastructure needs, such as upgrades and repairs.


Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.