A 72-inch aqueduct feeding the Jersey City, N. J. (pop. 200,000), water system burst and reduced the water supply to practically nothing, forcing the fire department to make some fast adjustments.

At the command post. Deputy Chief George Milne discusses the water crisis.

The first report of a large water main break at Henderson and 17 Sts. came to our communication center at 17:30 hours last July 15, along with a separate report of another break in one of the two 72-inch aqueducts that feed our water system. The latter break was somewhere in the Meadowlands in Secaucus, N.J. By 18:30 we realized that water pressure throughout the city was very low, with the exception of the downtown area which is fed by gravity from the Troy St Reservoir located in the Heights section of the city.

Two hours later, all off-duty and reserve pumpers in this fully-paid department were ordered to be manned and placed on duty. Soon afterward, a request for aid went to the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. They sent us four water tankers and chauffeurs —three tankers for fire fighting, the other one for drinking water. These chauffeured tankers were eventually to remain on duty for the entire five-day period of the emergency. We also supplied a guide man for each of these tankers.

It was to take many more hours before accurate information could be received and the severity of the situation fully realized and evaluated. At approximately 22:00 we were notified by the water department that the first break (at Henderson and 17th St.) was a minor one, and the Secaucus break, in a 70-year-old feed coming into the city from the Boonton Reservoir, about 45 miles to the north, was indeed serious.

At midnight the water department indicated that the break had been isolated and pressure would soon be restored. We were asked by representatives of the water department to man hydrants at strategic locations in order to bleed air from the grid system as water pressure was restored to the system. Several of our fire companies manned these key hydrants all through the early morning but to no avail. No water came through the system. Later they learned the break could not be bypassed because of the problems with the shut-off valves.

This lack of accurate on-the-scene information of the progress being made to correct the problem delayed us from increasing our requests for more mutual-aid tankers and delayed us from accurately evaluating the true extent of the emergency.

At 14:30 hours the next day, the fire department was alerted that a limited emergency was in effect. An emergency operating center was set up at city hall. The wide streets and large parking lot behind the building made this an excellent location. This area served as a storage and distribution area for millions of gallons of drinking water. Emergency lighting for the distribution area was set up and maintained by department personnel. Through the emergency operating center, arrangements were made with the state fire coordinator for additional tankers to supply water for fire fighting purposes. Fifteen tankers plus full crews of volunteer fire fighters were sent. They were assigned to various firehouses and were on duty until the emergency was officially over. Guides were supplied to direct the tanker operators.

The department, with the cooperation of the N.Y./N.J. Port Authority, was able to utilize a pipeline through the Holland Tunnel connecting New York and New jersey. This connection supplied about 350 gpm into our grid system until full service was restored. The neighboring municipalities of Bayonne and Union City pumped some water into our system but this supply was also minimal.

Finally the decision was made to shut the aqueduct down at the source in Boonton until the break could safely be isolated, inspected, pumped out and repaired by an underwater welding repair team. The patch was welded from the inside of the pipe. This plan worked, but it took another 24 hours before the system was safely flushed and full pressure restored.

During the emergency, the fire department was assigned many additional tasks that only they had the training and expertise to handle. All companies took hourly pressure tests at selected fire hydrants throughout the city. When potable water tankers arrived, fire fighters assisted in the distribution of water and the refilling of these units. The National Guard supplied nearly two dozen 400-gallon portable water tanks for disbursing drinking and cooking water. The fire department supplied the drivers with maps of the city giving the locations and telephone numbers of all the fire stations and police precinct stations to facilitate water deliveries.

As the National Guard units, city workers and civilian volunteers shuttled the 8000 to 10,000-gallon tankers around the city to keep the portable tanks filled, many problems arose. First, how to get the water from the larger tankers into the smaller buffaloes. The larger tankers, volunteered by various private organizations such as milk and soft drink companies, had valves and couplings that were incompatible with the fittings we had on hand. Secondly, most tankers were gravity feed, which made filling the smaller tanks a long, tedious job. Finally, we supplied sump pumps and 1 1/2-inch hose to t expedite water delivery.

Continuously throughout the emergency, the department aided in the disbursement of 1-gallon containers of potable water to shut-ins and elderly or disabled persons who were not able to get water at the regular dispensing areas. Large quantities of bottled water were delivered to fire stations and distributed by fire fighter personnel. Potable and nonpotable water deliveries were made around the clock to various hospitals’ dialysis units, prison facilities and some private organizations such as the telephone company, which required water for cooling their computerized equipment.

Luckily, of approximately 30 fires that the department responded to during the emergency, only two were serious building fires and they were extinguished by the normal alarm assignment.

Although there were many departments, organizations and volunteers that donated their time and services during the emergency, and their services were greatly appreciated, the scope of this article deals only with the fire department operations during the water emergency.


  1. A knowledgeable fire department water officer should be at the scene of any water disruption and in communication with the chief of the department whenever any significant water emergency is in progress.
  2. Fire coordinators at the emergency operations center handling the many lengthy and detailed radio and telephone instructions to personnel in the field should be separated from the noisy areas of the emergency operations center.
  3. Have sufficient qualified personnel to relieve coordinators at key command posts when the emergency is long-lasting.
  4. The fire department should be alerted immediately when different phases of the emergency are declared in effect.

You should have updated information on availability and type of specialized equipment that surrounding fire departments have. For example, large diameter hose (4, 5 and 6-inch hose and fittings), tanker trucks, portable pumps, etc.

  1. 6. The terms potable and nonpotable water were confusing to the general public and to many emergency personnel (some interpreted the terms to mean to carry water in pots). We suggested that the terms drinkable and nondrinkable might be less confusing.
Fifteen tankers plus full crews of volunteer fire fighters assisted the Jersey City Fire Department.

Photos by lames B. Carey

Suggestion: Have sufficient maps for mutual aid crews.
  1. We needed a better designation for the tankers that were only to be used to carry nonpotable water for fire fighting purposes versus those that carried noncontaminated water (quite frequently they were both parked outside the same fire station).
  2. Always have sufficient numbers of maps on hand with locations and telephone numbers of fire stations, police stations and the emergency operating center.
  3. Telephone log books should be available for the department coordinators at the emergency operating center. Important information and telephone numbers were difficult to retrieve due to the deluge of phone calls.
  4. Adequate food and rest areas should be available to the people providing emergency services.

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