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Shawnee crews face bitter cold to keep water supply moving

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star
City of Shawnee crews work to fix a water main break during frigid conditions.

Even under normal conditions, City of Shawnee Water Department crews have their work cut out for them when it comes to patching up broken water mains.

Add in several days of snow and single-to-negative-digit temperatures and the challenges shift to a whole new level.

“With the current weather and extreme temperatures we have encountered a multitude of issues,” Shawnee Utilities Director Brad Schmidt said. “Fuel and pumps are freezing, equipment is freezing, as well as snowfall covering valves.”

Frostbite and hypothermia are employee risks as well, he said. 

“All of the processes involved are delayed due to this,” he said.

City of Shawnee crews work to fix a water main break during frigid conditions.

The city has four to five crews of six to eight members in rotational operations, depending on equipment and pump functionality, Schmidt said. “We have rented additional equipment and pumps, and alternate these between the job site and Public Works buildings to thaw and/or be repaired.” 

The crews consist of the city's Distribution and Collection employees — under the direction of Shane Lomeli and Cody Ellis, respectively — and are bolstered by Parks Department employees, he said.

“This allows for additional work crews and employees to rotate to prevent cold related injuries,” Schmidt said.

City of Shawnee crews work to fix a water main break during frigid conditions.

The city also has two to four employees, depending on demand, from these departments who are responding to calls for emergency meter shutoffs due to frozen and broken residential house lines, he said.

”As well as a crew to initially respond to possible main break calls,” he said. “This crew will assess and obtain address for needed repairs.”

The city is currently leaving the mains on, where possible, to keep water available to residents for as long as possible, he said.

“This depends on the severity of the break, available water and any possibility of flooding,” he said. “Our water plant staff is closely monitoring water levels to ensure adequate supply and this can/will be adjusted accordingly.”

City of Shawnee crews work to fix a water main break during frigid conditions.

Street crews monitor these areas and apply a salt/sand mixture to reduce slick spots, Schmidt explained.

So far, crews have worked a total of 17 main breaks since Friday, with five currently in the repair process, he said.

“This continues to be a team effort between all Public Works Departments and our central garage has provided outstanding support in keeping our equipment operational,” he said.

Repairing a main

In general, when a possible main break is reported, a crew is dispatched to the location.

“Once it is a confirmed main break, the supervisor calls in a locate to mark other utilities in the area,” Schmidt said. “This creates a two-hour window to allow for locating and marking of additional utilities.”

During this time, he said, the crew locates valves to shut the main off and mobilizes equipment to the job site. “Once the locate is complete the crew begins repairs,” he said.

If the break is in the grass, repairs are typically completed in four to six hours, he explained.

“If the break is in the roadway, repairs usually take six to eight hours,” he said. “This (estimated time) can be extended by the nature of the repair.”

He said if a piece of pipe, valve or fitting needs to be replaced, it can add several hours to the job.

“Normally, repairs are made with a crew of four — an operator, truck driver and two field employees,” Schmidt said. “Once the repair is complete, it is back-filled and barricaded.”

He said repairs made in the road are then turned over to the Street Department for completion.

“Residents may notice fire hydrants opened during and after repairs, This serves a couple of purposes,” he said. “To assist in relieving pressure if valves cannot be located or are not operational, and also to bleed the air out of the lines after repair to reduce the possibility of additional breaks.”

City of Shawnee crews work to fix a water main break during frigid conditions.

Who to call

If residents notice possible main breaks or require a meter to be shut off, Schmidt said direct calls to (405) 273-2121, because the department is experiencing phone issues at the water plant. The water plant emergency line Schmidt is referring to is listed on the city's website, (405) 273-0890; it states its voice mailbox is full, so messages cannot get through to workers — do not call this number.

Also, he said residents may notice fire hydrants running in repair areas or city vehicles driving through the area, then leaving.

“These vehicles are verifying and obtaining addresses for locates, which are also delayed due to weather and road conditions,” he said. “We ask for the public's continued patience as we make all necessary repairs.”

For story ideas, questions or concerns, reporter Vicky O. Misa can be reached at vicky.misa@news-star.com.