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Absence of hydrants worries residents

The folks at Eldorado Village mobile home park didn't give fire hydrants much thought.

Then, Janet Ingalls' home burned down two weeks ago, and they began thinking about fire hydrants a lot.

Turns out their park doesn't have any.

They learned that after firefighters had to lay down 1,300 feet of hose to reach a hydrant near Ronnie's restaurant on East Bay Drive.

"I'm concerned for everybody," said resident Joan Mackay, 71. "There's a lot of older people in the park that can't get around very well. It's really a very dangerous situation, I think."

If the park was built today, Largo's codes would generally require a hydrant within 500 feet of each home. But Eldorado Village, like many mobile home parks established decades ago, does not have to retrofit to adapt to current codes, fire officials said.

Eldorado Village is private property, so MHC, which owns the park, would have to foot the bill if hydrants are installed.

Ingalls was amazed that older parks don't have to adhere to rules for new parks.

"What would it have taken? For me to die, for them to do something?" Ingalls said.

Largo Fire Rescue Division Chief Mark Jones said that Eldorado Village is far from unique, and that Largo firefighters have learned to adapt.

"We have a number of parks in the same situation," Jones said. "With what happened at the recent fire at Eldorado, our fire crews knew what areas are problematic and knew they had a long way coming in."

Largo has about 35 mobile home parks and several have only a few hydrants. Midway Trailer Court Mobile Home Park and Oasis mobile home park are among a handful with none.

At some parks without hydrants, such as Shady Dell or Blue Skies, it's not a problem, Jones said. They're small parks, and there are public hydrants nearby.

But the situation at Bay Ranch, which has none, or Westgate, which has one at the southwest corner near the entrance, can be problematic, Jones said.

Both Mayor Bob Jackson and Commissioner Charlie Harper were surprised that some parks had no hydrants or that older parks are not required to meet standards for newer ones.

Neither had sympathy for park owners who found the cost prohibitive.

"If there's action that the City Commission needs to take, then we'll take that action. Obviously, you can't have some place not protected." Harper said. "I don't want anybody to tell me when it comes to safety, it's too expensive."

And Jackson said rent at some parks is high enough that owners could afford the safety measure already.

"I think we ought to take a look at it and see whether or not we could make it a requirement" or at least urge park owners to comply.

The issue isn't contained to Largo.

Terry Welker, Clearwater Fire and Rescue Department deputy chief, said his firefighters dealt with a similar situation at a Clearwater mobile home park.

But most fire departments have adapted to those kind of issues with larger diameter fire hoses, Welker said.

And Pinellas County purchased two tankers specifically to address this issue, Largo Fire Rescue Deputy Chief of Operations Jeff Bullock said.

Anthony Apfelbeck, legislative director for the Florida Fire Marshal and Inspectors Association, said lack of fire hydrants in older mobile home parks is common in several jurisdictions and is compounded by the fact that people think fire is something that happens to others.

"A lot of people don't think it's going to happen to them anyway," Apfelbeck said. "Fires don't discriminate. It happens to everybody."

However, it's rare that fire departments force older establishments to conform to current hydrant codes, he said.

"I don't think I've ever heard of that scenario," he said.

But legal or not, having hydrants too far from residents is dangerous because mobile home parks often use roadways that are narrow.

They typically have higher fire incident rates and the majority of fire deaths occur in residential environments where a water supply is not readily available to firefighters, he said.

"It's definitely a hazard in my opinion," Apfelbeck said.

Ingalls' home at Eldorado Village caught fire about 11:15 p.m. on Jan. 19. A call to 911 came in about 11:17 p.m. and within five minutes an engine was on the scene at 2505 East Bay Drive.

Firefighters extinguished the fire initially, but a few residents said firefighters ran out of water for about four or five minutes at one point.

"By the time they got water from East Bay, the whole back end burnt out," said neighbor Denise Hurd, 50.

But Bullock of Largo Fire Rescue said a hose line broke after the bulk of the fire had died down, and it took only a couple of minutes to get water on a hot spot after firefighters ran a hose to a hydrant on East Bay Drive. Plus, he said, there was always a backup tank of water on hand.

Ingalls and her cat Tazz made it to safety. Few of her belongings survived.

Neither fire officials nor residents think a closer hydrant would have saved Ingalls' home.

But that doesn't make residents at the 224-unit park feel secure about the future.

Residents have been talking to each other and meeting with management to see if hydrants can be installed.

"My concern is these mobile homes, they do go up fast and many are close together," Patti Hickok, 49, said.

But they are learning that hydrants are an expensive proposition.

"It would be big bucks to put one in. I've owned a business, and you only have so much money to work with, Roger Marcotte, 57, said.

Hydrants themselves run about $1,500 to $2,000. But the cost to hook them up can have many variables.

One issue is that parks built without hydrants usually don't have adequate water mains, said David Alley, president of Alley & Associates civil engineering firm.

If a park the size of Eldorado Village has inadequate mains, installation costs could run as high as $224,000 to $358,000, Alley said.

Park officials could not be reached for comment.

Park management referred questions to a representative at the corporate office, who did not return calls Thursday or Friday.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorrisptimes.com.

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