A City WITHOUT Water

A City WITHOUT Water


In many areas of the country we take our water supply for granted. Barring unusual circumstances, there’s always plenty of water for home, industry, and firefighting. But consider the far-reaching effects of a full or partial municipal water system shutdown. What would you do? What steps would be necessary to ensure adequate community protection? This was the problem we faced in Jersey City, New Jersey in September of this year when we were without most of our water for almost 30 hours, eight of which were unanticipated.

Jersey City, the state’s second largest city with a population of approximately 250,000 people in 19 square miles, is located on the Hudson River directly across from lower Manhattan. It is sometimes referred to as New York City’s “sixth borough.” Jersey City has a diverse mix of construction and fire protection challenges. The downtown section consists of treelined streets of brownstones, row houses, and frame tenements. The Greenville section has dozens of blocks of two and three-story frame houses with very narrow alleys, presenting an extreme exposure problem. Other areas of the city have oneand two-family houses, massive ordinary-constructed apartment buildings, modern high-rises, public housing projects, shopping malls, rows of taxpayers in the many commercial districts, and major factories and manufacturing sites. The New Jersey Turnpike runs through our city, a leg of which extends to the Holland Tunnel, connecting Jersey City with Manhattan.


In July 1990 the fire department was summoned to an emergency management planning meeting to address a scheduled shutdown of approximately three-fourths of the city’s domestic and firefighting water supply as part of an ongoing project to upgrade its aging, deteriorating supply system. Since as apparatus supervisor I have an intimate knowledge of our apparatus, equipment, and resources, Chief of Department Frank A. Constantinople asked me to attend this meeting as the department’s representative.

One of the final steps in the water supply renovation project was to replace three 36-inch gate valves that control the water to three-fourths of the city. The work was originally scheduled for July; however, with the temperatures soaring in the high 90s and hydrants flowing freely, it was the consensus of all meeting attendees that to proceed at this time would be to court disaster. The shutdown was then rescheduled for September 21, and we had our work cut out for us.

Realizing the enormous fire protection problem facing us and the resources that would be needed to provide service, I requested the assistance of Captain Robert Cobb of the chief’s staff, and the planning phase began.

Jersey City’s water needs are served by two reservoirs, Split-Rock and Boonton, some 23 miles away. A series of twin 72-inch pipes and aqueduct tunnels carry the water into the city’s pump station. An auxiliary line comes in from Bellville, but it is not normally pressurized because of its age and condition. The city’s normal consumption rate is approximately 60 million gallons daily, with hydrant pressures ranging front 40 to 75 psi. It was projected that during the shutdown only 1,000 to 2,000 gpnt would be available citywide, with pressures of only 20 to 30 psi with the system intact (no breaks and no open hydrants). Some of this service would be provided by the Bellville line that would be activated during the main shutdown. Our only reliable water source would be from the downtown section, which is gravity fed from a holding reservoir, and a string of 23 hydrants connected to the neighboring city of Bayonne’s water service and completely independent from the Jersey City system. In either case, pumping from these sources would require long stretches of 5-inch LDH and a massive effort.

We realized that the 3,500-gallon capacity of the department’s tank truck would be woefully inadequate to cover this much area, so we contacted New Jersey State Fire Coordinator Dan Krushinski to obtain mutual-aid tanker support from other departments. He assembled a fleet of 10 tank trucks from volunteer departments in Somerset, Monmouth, and Middlesex counties. During the week prior to the shutdown, Captain Cobb gathered information on the incoming apparatus, including tank size, configuration, and method of discharge.


Being a strictly urban fire department, our members are very comfortable having hydrant service on every street; working from a tanker shuttle would be a completely different ballgame. We developed a water emergency SOP; briefed the deputy chiefs, battalion chiefs, and company officers scheduled to work on that particular 24-hour tour; and requested that their members become completely familiar with the plan. The new plan was based on our normal apparatus placement SOP that calls for engine companies to operate in pairs of attack and supply units.

All structural alarms were to receive a response of four pumpers, two trucks, two tankers, and the hose reel truck (a 1979 International with a massive reel containing 2,400 feet of 5-inch supply line). As the designated officer in charge of water coordination from the command post, when notified of an alarm I was to strategically assign one tanker to each of the cross streets of the address given. Tanker units were to be cautioned against entering the fire street, to remain available to leave and refill.

If a working fire was reported, the first-arriving pumper was to attack the fire on tank water. The second due was to lay a supply line to the nearest intersection and meet up with the tanker. Captain Cobb, acting as the field water coordinator, was to report via radio the location of the active tanker operation. The second tanker on the assignment was then to be directed around the block to back up the first operating tanker. If needed, these two units were to begin a tanker shuttle to one of the unaffected areas or a Bayonne hydrant. A third tanker was to be special-called to the scene to keep the flow continuous.

Jersey City's 3,500-gallon-capacity tanker could not provide the coverage needed for such a large-scale shutdown; a mutual-aid tanker convoy—representing 62,000 gallons of water protection—was mobilized and responded. The city's hose reel truck, canning 2,400 feet of LDH, figured prominently in water emergency plans.

(Photos by Ron Jeffers.)

If the fire was of greater magnitude than could be handled by this method, the third and fourth pumpers on the assignment were to operate as another pair of attack and supply pumpers. The fourth pumper was to feed the third with a five-inch supply line and lay out to a hydrant designated by the central office command post. This location was to be provided by a water department engineer stationed at the command post, selecting the largest main in the immediate area.

If the pumper had difficulty supplying the line, members of the hose reel truck were to lay its line to a larger source of water or the closest Bayonne hydrant. One of our two highvolume 2,000-gpm pumpers was to be dispatched automatically to this site to pump the line. A police liaison at the command post was to have police units close streets as necessary for the five-inch LDH and have barricades at his disposal to assist in this task.

Since the Jersey City Fire Department has mutual-aid agreements with New York City, we use New York Corp. threads on all 2 1/2-inch discharges; we provide our engine companies with “out-of-town” adapters when responding to other jurisdictions. All incoming mutual-aid units required discharge adapters to be compatible with our operation.


The fire director and chief of department— to oversee and approve of all phases of the planning and operations involved.

Deputy fire director— to act as liaison between the emergency management command post at city hall and the fire department command post at the central office.

The city wide deputy chief—in command of the field firefighting forces.

The officer in charge of water supply-located at the command post to coordinate apparatus and tanker movements and direct units to the best water sources.

The field water coordinator— to coordinate companies on-scene to supply continuous flow of water.

The public information specialist— to keep voice and print media informed of all phases of the operation.

The fire department representative at the excavation site—to keep the command post informed of work progress.

The water department engineer— stationed at the command post to advise the water coordinator of the best available water sources.

The police liaison—stationed at the command post to coordinate needed police support.

The HMS liaison—stationed at the command post to coordinate dispatching of EMS units to fire scenes.

The central office dispatchers—additional manning provided at the central office to handle many incoming calls and inquiries.

The water-supply renovation work was scheduled to begin at 2000 hours on Friday, September 21 and be completed by 0600 the following day. It was projected that the city water system would be back to full operating pressure by 0800.


At approximately 0545 hours on Friday, the Jersey City Fire Department Central Office was notified by the city emergency management coordinator that a water main break had occurred and left most of the city without water. All engine companies were ordered to take pressure readings and report their findings to the central office.

I was notified at approximately 0550 hours and instructed the central office to take the following steps: 1) notify the chief of department; 2) fill the tank truck and move it to the center of the city; 3) move the hose reel to the center of the city; 4) request immediate mutual-aid tanker support from neighboring Bayonne and Harrison fire departments; and 5) notify Captain Cobb to activate the water emergency plan.

Captain Cobb contacted the state fire coordinator and explained our situation. Since it was impractical to call the tankers committed for the evening shutdown—they were all volunteers from Region II (central New Jersey) who had planned on being available for the night, and their unscheduled mobilization during rushhour traffic would be delayed —they decided to contact Region I Coordinator Bruce Scott for the closest tankers available. West Milford and Mahwah fire departments responded immediately; later in the day the Mahwah tanker would be relieved by a unit from the Ridgefield Fire Department. Scott also placed three other tank trucks on alert to be dispatched as needed.

The City of New York Port Authority, which operates the Holland Tunnel, made available two 2,000-gallon tank trucks normally used for tunnel maintenance. A member of our fire department was sent to ride as a guide for the tank trucks, and the Port Authority supplied a patrol car as an escort.

Although fire department officers had intended to use it otherwise, the Bayonne tanker was dispatched to the crowded county jail for fear that inmates might riot if left without water for an extended period of time.

I responded to the central office command post and assumed the duties of OIC water coordinator. There I met and briefed Fire Director John McLaughlin as to the actions that had been taken. We placed the water emergency dispatching criteria in effect and transferred EMS first responder calls, normally handled by the engines, to the truck companies.

Captain Cobb reported to the water department for a briefing and then assumed the duties of field water coordinator. He ascertained that the water main break was located in one of the 72-inch mains outside of the city and that the water department was attempting to isolate the break.

During the operation the Bayonne Fire Department tanker was transferred to the Hudson County Jail. This aging facility is filled to capacity with prisoners and we feared that a condition of unrest might develop if water was unavailable. The Harrison Fire Department tanker was substituted to cover the south portion of the city.

The leak was isolated and water service restored at approximately 1400 hours. Fearing a recurrence of the break as the pressure was returned, all tank trucks were retained until relieved by the incoming tanker group that was to work the scheduled shutdown.

Although service was restored, Jersey City truck companies responded to dozens of calls for residential water leaks. Many residents who had awoken in the morning to no available water apparently left for work with their faucets turned on! In many cases we had to gain alternate access to apartments and stop the property damage from overflowing sinks and tubs. Fortunately, only two structural fires occurred during this period and both were easily handled by the units on the scenes.


The Caven Point Army Reserve Base was used as a staging and briefing location for the incoming tanker convoy. The Gong Club (a privately operated canteen unit) set up drinks and sandwiches for all personnel. Ten motorcycle officers from the Jersey City Police Department were stationed at the staging area to act as tanker escorts and overnight security. Staff portable radios were gathered and issued to fire department personnel who were then assembled to ride with the tankers as guides.

The tanker convoy arrived at approximately 1845 hours and the operators were directed to the Army base mess hall, where they were briefed by Captain Cobb and Acting Deputy Chief Onieal. They were then assigned a fire station, guide, and motorcycle officer and deployed throughout the city. When the units arrived at their assignments they received their hose coupling adapters and checked in as ready for duty. At 2015 hours I informed the fire department representative at the work site that we were ready for the shutdown.

A fully manned, reserve fire department pumper was stationed at the Jersey City Medical Center, a major hospital complex, with instructions to boost the pressure to the facility if necessary.

Work at the construction site fell behind schedule when the water department had difficulty stopping the flow of water. Officials determined that shutdown of the auxiliary Bellville line was necessary to accomplish the mission. This further depleted available pressure in the hydrant system. At approximately 0300 hours we were notified that they had effectively stopped the water flow and had begun replacing the valves.

The mutual-aid tankers are staged at the Cavern Point Army Reserve Base.As work progressed on municipal water system repairs, tankers were strategically positioned at fire stations throughout the city. Close coordination between all units and agencies during this response was absolutely essential if the emergency plan was to succeed. Although truck companies responded to numerous calls for residential water leaks, only two working fires were reported during the entire shutdown, both of which were handled quickly by the first alarm assignments.As work progressed on municipal water system repairs, tankers were strategically positioned at fire stations throughout the city. Close coordination between all units and agencies during this response was absolutely essential if the emergency plan was to succeed. Although truck companies responded to numerous calls for residential water leaks, only two working fires were reported during the entire shutdown, both of which were handled quickly by the first alarm assignments.

As morning approached it became obvious that the work would continue far beyond the scheduled 0800 completion time. Acting Deputy Chief Onieal ordered a recall of personnel to man all needed positions. Out-oftown tanker crews were polled to determine a relief schedule.

State Coordinator Krushinski secured four additional tankers to replace units that had to leave the city, later in the day as work progressed, we released tankers on schedule and relocated others to maintain coverage.

At approximately 1500 hours we were informed that the work was complete and pressure was beginning to rise. Hydrant readings were taken hourly from 1300 to 1700 hours. At 1715 hours the water system was back to normal and all out-of-town tankers were relieved of duty and sent home.


  • A comprehensive water emergency plan was developed and is now available at the Jersey City Fire Department Central Office. It addresses all problems that occurred during this event and provides an updated list of available resources and their contact points.
  • We had briefed and drilled with only those personnel scheduled for duty during the planned shutdown. When the emergency extended into the next shift, we gave a crash course to the oncoming group. The water emergency standard operating procedure has since been distributed to all members of all groups.
  • Out-of-town hose coupling adapters were in great demand during this full-scale operation that involved a large number of mutual-aid units. We have ordered additional out-of-town adapters so that we can utilize the full pumping capacity of off-loading tankers.
  • Supplies of spare portable radios
  • were limited. 24-hour availability for issue to tanker guides has been made.
  • Since work on the city water system far exceeded expected completion time, our water emergency plan now provides for a schedule of relief times for tanker crews.
  • The county jail relied on the fire department for water supply during this emergency. We’re exploring alternatives to relieve the fire department of the responsibility.
  • The fire department should not be burdened with involvement in
  • domestic water supply. Additionally, domestic water tanks should not be placed at or near fire stations, as this tends to obstruct response and causes undue confusion.
  • When a water emergency occurs during duty hours, staff personnel should be utilized to the fullest extent as tanker guides, as escorts for incoming units, and to move equipment and personnel as necessary.
  • The unexpected main break followed by the subsequent shutdown left several key personnel on duty for 36 continuous hours. With the availability of the water emergency plan, duties and procedures are clearly de-
  • fined and therefore personnel can be rotated more easily.
  • The use of the “Water Emergency Operation Worksheet” proved extremely successful in assisting command post personnel in an orderly assignment of units.

The planning and preparation that went into this project resulted in a smooth, efficient operation when the unexpected main break occurred 12 hours in advance of the planned shutdown. All minor problems were addressed without incident and we experienced a great deal of cooperation from both fire personnel and other city agencies.

The lessons learned from this experience resulted in the necessary improvements to make the plan even more complete for the future. We were fortunate that the public cooperated and the incidence of fire was relatively low during this period. However, I am confident that we could have handled any fire or emergency situation that would have presented itself.

The newly developed water emergency plan was put to the test some three weeks later on the evening of October 11th, when a 30-squareblock area of the city was without water services because of a break in the underground distribution system. The citywide deputy chief implemented the plan, making the necessary contacts through the Fire Department Central Office: Both high-volume pumpers were moved into fire stations close to the break; the hose reel and tank truck were manned and placed on full duty for response to the affected area; and an additional tank truck was called in from the Port Authority to complete the two-tanker response to alarms. The OIC of water supply and field water coordinator were called in, and all alarms were handled according to plan and without incident. The water emergency plan served as a swift-action guide for the on-duty officer, ensuring that all situations were adequately provided for.

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