Angry Tennessee Water Department Locks Down Fire Hydrants

ATHENS, Tenn. (AP) -- Fire hydrants here were locked down in north McMinn County for 15 months when a water utility became upset at the volunteer fire department for using them to fill swimming polls.

The Union Grove Fire Department chief says the free swimming pool fill-ups were done in exchange for needed donations to his agency.

``We are a poor district and have to raise money however we can,'' Chief Alvin Shoemaker said.

But the Watts Bar Utility District, based in Kingston and serving the northern portion of McMinn, didn't like the idea of paying for all that water so the fire department could get its donations, and placed locks on a number of fire hydrants.

The fire hydrants were recently unlocked - although the water utility says it has no obligation to provide hydrants or water to firefighters and didn't feel like its move created any liability for the utility.

McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said the county tried to mediate the dispute, but has no direct control over the separate water utility or fire department, which was set up in a special vote as its own volunteer agency.

``But they (Union Grove) are not chartered by the county. It is a community fire department with a chief elected by the members,'' Gentry said.

Wesley Barger, service manager for Watts Bar Utility District, said the rural fire department had refused to sign a water contract with the district.

``We don't charge fire departments for water, but we have to report water loss to the state,'' Barger said.

He said they decided to go ahead and unlock the hydrants even though the fire department did not sign a contract.

Shoemaker said he did not want to try to calculate his agency's water usage - from the swimming pool fill-ups or from actual fires.

``I'm not going back after a fire, when I'm tired, and figure that out,'' Chief Shoemaker said.

At least one house fire occurred near one of the hydrants during the lockout, Shoemaker said.

``We got there quick enough to get it out and didn't need the hydrant,'' he said.