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MBTA was slow to repair or replace standpipe systems used to put out fires

A standpipe at Charles/MGH station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Firefighters were caught by surprise in July, when faulty equipment at the Charles/MGH station made it impossible to pump water upstairs to douse a fire on a Red Line train on elevated tracks.

But a Globe analysis of four years of MBTA data indicate that the agency has been less than diligent at addressing the relatively frequent problems identified with these critical pieces of fire suppression equipment.

Since 2019, about 1 in 5 standpipe systems on T property have failed at least one pressure test, a key assessment of whether they are working properly, according to the data, obtained through a public records request.

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And during that period, it took the agency an average of 6½ months to fully address the problems, by replacing or repairing, retesting, and recertifying them as functioning in accordance with standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization that develops best practices, the Globe found.

Sometimes it took much longer. After failures were discovered between 2019 and 2021 in standpipe systems at Maverick, Alewife, Tufts Medical Center, Back Bay, and South stations, it took nearly two years or more for the equipment to pass pressure tests, according to a MBTA spreadsheet of standpipe testing results.

For a passing grade, water must flow through a standpipe system for at least two hours at a pressure of 200 pounds per square inch, according to NFPA standards .

The MBTA spreadsheet listed 162 standpipe systems with testing information for all but three of them. One of those systems hasn’t been constructed, the T said.

A standpipe system along the Red Line at Park Street station appears to have gone the longest without being repaired or replaced, according to the MBTA spreadsheet.

The document shows the system failed its most recent hydrostatic test on Nov. 23, 2019. The spreadsheet said a replacement isn’t expected to be in place until December, more than four years after the MBTA learned the equipment was faulty.

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In written statements, the MBTA acknowledged “deficiencies in our standpipe inspection program” and vowed to improve under Dennis Varley, the T’s new chief of stations.

Varley joined the T last month from Long Island Rail Road, the former stomping ground of T General Manager Phillip Eng. At LIRR, Varley managed a standpipe inspection program among other safety initiatives, the T said.

Varley “is working to develop a robust, annual inspection program, and he is exploring the use of multiple vendors to assist the MBTA in ensuring that all standpipes are ready at all times if needed for an emergency,” the T said in a statement earlier this month.

“We take this issue very seriously and are committed to the safety of our riders, employees, and first responders,” Eng said in a statement last Monday. “We’re all committed to improving the system for our riders and employees as we work to rebuild public confidence through action.”

On Thursday, Eng, who started in April, and Varley met with Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Burke to discuss ways to enhance safety on the transit system, a T spokesperson said.

Between November 2017 and July of this year, Boston firefighters issued violation notices for 55 standpipe systems on T property, according to a Globe analysis of city documents provided under a public records request.

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Firefighters issued more than half of the violations for standpipes that failed hydrostatic testing, the records show.

As of earlier this month, the MBTA said just two of the agency’s 169 standpipe systems require work, the one at Park Street in downtown Boston and the other at Braintree station. In both cases, the T said it has notified local fire departments about the issues and that firefighters still have access to water, but not necessarily from the pipes that failed hydrostatic tests.

The agency said the standpipe at Park Street needs to be relocated and is being redesigned. Standpipe systems in other areas at Park Street passed their most recent pressure tests between 2019 and 2021, according to the T spreadsheet, and another round of testing is due to begin next year. NFPA standards call for property owners to conduct hydrostatic tests on standpipes every five years and conduct visual inspections annually.

Because of risks posed by faulty standpipes, NFPA calls for property owners to enact backup plans to lower the chance of firefighters having to seek out alternative water sources if fire erupts near a broken standpipe. To be sure, firefighters can always find water, but precious time is lost if standpipes closest to a blaze aren’t working, an expert said.

“You just can’t ignore it,” said Milosh T. Puchovsky, a professor who helps to lead the fire protection engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “These systems have to be ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week because you just never know when a fire might occur.”

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But it wasn’t clear what further steps, if any, were taken by the T to supplement fire protection in areas where standpipe systems previously failed hydrostatic tests, but weren’t immediately repaired or replaced and then retested with passing grades. Despite repeated questions from the Globe, the T didn’t specify how it has handled that scenario in the past beyond saying local fire departments know right away when standpipes fail tests and can access water from other sources.

Massachusetts has adopted NFPA standards that call for annual visual inspections of standpipes, pressure tests every five years, and backup plans for when standpipes aren’t working. But because of state law and a 2000 determination by the state attorney general’s office, state fire regulations don’t apply to the MBTA.

The MBTA said it implemented a new system for performing and documenting annual visual inspections of standpipes after the Charles/MGH incident revealed that the T had only been doing them on an as-needed basis.

The MBTA said it does not have any records of visual inspection or maintenance for the broken standpipe at Charles/MGH station since it passed a hydrostatic test in 2019 and was not conducting the annual visual inspections before Boston firefighters discovered the problem on July 13.

At a meeting of the MBTA board of directors’ safety subcommittee conducted hours after Charles/MGH station was evacuated, Ronald Ester, then the T’s chief safety officer, provided information about the incident, but didn’t disclose that the standpipe had failed.

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The next day, MBTA officials seemed to scramble to determine maintenance requirements for standpipes, emails obtained by the Globe show.

“According to NFPA, what are the inspection mandatory requirements for stand pipes?” T Deputy Director of Facilities Maintenance John Gauthier asked Fire Protection Specialist Robert Kelley in an email.

Kelley informed him of standards for annual visual inspections and hydrostatic tests every five years, and prepared a draft inspection form.

On July 18, Ester announced a new safety directive requiring the agency to conduct visual inspections of standpipes and document the findings internally, T emails show.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her @lauracrimaldi. Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven.