Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded

Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded

When Ric Cavender’s house caught fire on May 5 in the Edgewood neighborhood of Charleston, the capital city’s fire department was on the scene within minutes to knock down the blaze. 

However, when firefighters hooked up to the hydrants in the area – literally yards down the street from the home – they found not one, not two, but three didn’t work, according to a lawsuit. 

While Cavender saw his earthly possessions burn up, he also lost a best friend: Duke, the family dog. 

Now, state regulators are trying to see if Cavender’s tragedy is a warning of a bigger problem plaguing communities. On June 30, the West Virginia Public Service Commission launched a statewide investigation into the number of working fire hydrants, but it turns out that’s easier said than done.

More than a week after the initial deadline, a little more than half of the state’s 301 water districts have responded.  

Now, regulators have extended the deadline to Aug. 25, threatening up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines for anyone who defies it. Most of the largest systems have submitted responses, with the notable exception of the Berkeley County Public Service Water District, which serves one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. 

As hydrant data trickles in, West Virginia ranks among worst states for fire deaths 

Fire protection is a huge problem in West Virginia; the state was ranked second in the nation from 2015-2019 in fire deaths per capita, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2022, at least 19 West Virginians died in house fires — the death rate of house fires is roughly double that than the rest of the nation, according to FEMA. 

But Paul Calamita, the general counsel for the West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association, said the data requests are a bit overwhelming for small water districts, who he said might have to hire consultants to figure it out. He said the less than a month turnaround for data was an arbitrary timeline that didn’t give enough time for districts to respond. 

“We just think this move is tone deaf and it’s just the PSC seeing how quickly they can make people jump,” Calamita said. 

This empty lot is where Ric Cavender’s house once stood. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

The association sent a letter asking for an extension for large systems (defined as serving 10,000 or more residents) until Sept. 15 to submit, followed by mid-sized systems submitting in November and small systems at the end of the year, Calamita said. 

In its extension order, the PSC stated information on fire hydrants are already supposed to be filed by the water utilities to the commission in an annual report. Those reports describe each  system’s inventory in broad strokes, like the number of fire hydrants and their size and capability. 

But the current 27-question survey sent to water districts dives deeper, asking questions about the age of the system, details on inspections and problems relating to the hydrants. 

A PSC spokesman declined to state whether the timeline has caused a disparity in information, citing its Aug. 7 order as “speaking for itself.”

However, Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, whose Joint Standing Committee on Technology and Infrastructure heard PSC testimony on the issue earlier this week, said he doesn’t think it will be an issue. 

“We’re working on a very aggressive time frame, but I wouldn’t view this as the end of our fact gathering process,” Linville said. Linville said the investigation isn’t about “finger pointing” at the water districts, but a fact-finding mission to inform lawmakers come the January 2024 regular session. 

Meanwhile, up on Chester Road in Charleston, Matt McKinney tinkers in his garage, directly across the street from the now-vacant lot where Cavender’s house once stood. 

He said on the night of the fire, his newborn woke him up – when he walked down stairs to fix a bottle, he saw the flashing red lights of the engines and the smoking billowing in the street. In the weeks following the blaze, McKinney said he saw West Virginia American Water trucks come and go in the neighborhood; he even saw workers dig up a line. 

“It’s definitely scary that it happened,” he said. 

Down the street stand two fire hydrants — one looks relatively new, while the other has an orange placard hanging off it stating, “not in service.”  A West Virginia American water spokeswoman said the broken one is being kept out of service due to an ongoing lawsuit over the fire. 

Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Bennington ambulance service and recovery center team up to reach drug users

Bill Camarda, executive director of the Bennington Rescue Squad, staffs a booth at the annual MayFest event, providing harm reduction materials and education to members of the community. Photo courtesy of Bennington Rescue Squad.

The Bennington Rescue Squad and the Turning Point Center of Bennington have launched a new kind of partnership to reach people with substance use disorders who have so far been falling through the cracks. The Vermont Office of Emergency Medical Services calls it the first collaboration of its kind in the state.

Whenever the rescue squad responds to a substance-related call – many of them nonfatal opioid overdoses – emergency responders offer to take patients to the local emergency room, where volunteer peer coaches with the Turning Point Center are on standby to talk about paths to recovering from substance abuse.

But of the 20 to 30 emergency calls the squad receives every month, at least 25% of the patients refuse to be taken to the hospital, said squad director Bill Camarda. For those five to 10 people, emergency responders can only leave them with opioid antidote kits and printed information about where to seek help.  

“They really don’t want to have anything to do with the health care system,” Camarda said. “But at the same time, they’re not in the right mindset to be like, ‘I really need some help right now.’”

He said those patients are deterred by several factors: the stigma attached to drug use, a belief that nothing can help them, or preoccupation with getting their next dose, which will get rid of withdrawal symptoms.

After seeing dozens of local residents with substance use disorder fall through cracks in the system each year, the two Bennington nonprofit organizations decided to partner on another way to reach them. 

Starting June 9, when someone who shows signs or a history of substance use disorder refuses to be taken to the emergency department by the Bennington Rescue Squad, Camarda said paramedics on scene ask for written consent to share the patient’s name, contact information and case summary with the Turning Point Center.

If patients agree, peer coaches will visit them within 24 to 48 hours and discuss the resources available in combating substance use disorder. 

Bennington EMT Rick Noel preparing harm reduction kits to hand out for at-risk individuals and at public events. Photo courtesy of Bennington Rescue Squad

“We have the opportunity to potentially get ahead of some of these crises,” said Margae Diamond, executive director of the Bennington Turning Point Center.

Like they do at the hospital emergency room, the coaches may discuss medication-assisted treatment, psychotherapy, recovery coaching, support group meetings and organizations that can help with finding work or a new home.

During these home visits, Diamond said, recovery coaches will pair up with a local mental health professional from United Counseling Service, in recognition that substance use and mental health are often closely linked.

On top of the growing number of opioid overdose deaths, the Bennington recovery center is also concerned about the pervasive use of alcohol. The state Department of Health has reported that last year in Vermont, excessive alcohol use was associated with nearly one in four deaths among people ages 20-34 and nearly one in five deaths of those ages 35-49.


“The ricochet of problems that develop from long-term alcohol use is something that we’d like to be able to identify earlier and provide some connection to resources,” Diamond said.

Since the partnership’s launch in June, however, only three patients have allowed the rescue squad to share their information with the recovery center. The leaders of both organizations say they’re working on strategies to increase participation, such as fine-tuning how their staffers communicate with patients.

Still, the state EMS Office lauds the initiative, saying it’s a model for other Vermont communities. 

“The seriousness of the opioid crisis and increasing number of overdoses and deaths necessitates innovation and locally developed solutions,” said Bambi Dame, the state health department’s emergency medical services chief.

She said some groups in Chittenden County are already discussing setting up a similar partnership.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Bennington ambulance service and recovery center team up to reach drug users.

San Juan Bautista gets a new full-time deputy sheriff

Attention San Juan Bautista:  There’s a new sheriff in town!
Well, a new full-time deputy sheriff anyway: Deputy Desi Villanueva has been with the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department for two years, after having previously worked at the Merced Police Department.

“I realized I wanted to work for a sheriff’s office a lot more,” Villanueva said. “I was so excited to come here. Hollister is a great place for me because I really appreciate small towns. And obviously, when the assignment came up for San Juan Bautista, I jumped at it as fast as I could.”

Villanueva first became interested in law enforcement because he liked the structure, and he found that he got considerable satisfaction from getting the chance to help people.

“I like that people trust us,” he said. They pretty much call us when all else fails or when they can’t get the help that they need. We can then exercise every resource we have, and I really like being able to solve problems, especially here on patrol.”

“Our new deputy is awesome,” said San Juan Bautista City Manager Don Reynolds, “and he’s really excited and enthusiastic about working for our town. He’s a lot more visible than we had in the past, and we’re so excited to have him on board.”

Villanueva was officially stationed in San Juan on May 24 but has worked in the city before that, both on regular patrols and for events like the recent Rib Cookoff. Currently, he will be scheduled to patrol at least on Wednesdays through Saturdays from 2 p.m. to midnight.

“There’s a lot of extra days that I will be working,” he said, “so you might see me here on a Sunday or on a Tuesday. We want the San Juan deputy to be visible and out on the street. I don’t want people just to see a patrol car. I want people to see me working, so I am going to be walking around as much as I can.”

One reason for the constant patrolling is to monitor some of the more common problems in San Juan, such as tourist traffic and visitors who might not understand how small the town is.

“We see them coming in here speeding,” he said, “and we have a lot of traffic and parking issues. I’m working with code enforcement to combat some of these problems, pretty much like any normal law enforcement agency. But things can be a lot different because we’re very small.”

Villanueva is also hoping his presence on the street will make people more comfortable about approaching him with law enforcement concerns.

“The businesses all have my cell number and can flag me down if there is a problem,” he said, “but anyone can come up to me and talk on a personal level. 100% of my effort, time, and energy is going to San Juan, and I am here to help solve its issues and make sure everything that the residents need me to do is handled the best I can.”

While he intends to be a visible presence in town if he is needed and cannot be found, Villanueva said that residents could reach him through existing channels by either calling 911 for emergencies or 831-636-4080 for non-emergencies.  

“If there’s anything that the people of San Juan want done or they want us to look at something,” he said, “call in and let us know. That’s what I’m here for, to help people combat the problems that they have.”

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