Jared Kim is seeing an increasing number of damaged and vandalized fire prevention standpipes on buildings all across Oahu as thieves target the brass fittings for cash.
Kim, vice president and general manager of Alii Fire Protection Co., began notifying city officials in 2008 about disappearing brass caps on dry standpipes and the even harder-to-steal brass components of "snoot fittings," which enable Honolulu firefighters to pump water into a building’s standpipe system during a multistory fire.
Since 2008, Kim said, "the situation’s gotten a lot worse" as thieves use more muscle to pull off the heavier brass snoot pieces that are worth well more than $100.
In the early hours of June 21, thieves cut off a brass "back-flow preventer" along the side of the eastbound H-1 freeway. The damage sent thousands of gallons of water spewing onto the Middle Street merge and forced the closure of town-bound commuter traffic for an hour, said Tammy Mori, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
Repair crews who showed up at 4:40 a.m. found that "the line was cut cleanly with some sort of pipe cutter," Mori said. "It caused a lot of traffic problems for us that morning."
Kim worries that the damage by brass thieves could be more dangerous than their predecessors of a few years ago, copper thieves, whose work darkened portions of Oahu’s freeways.
No one seems to care that a dry standpipe has been damaged until it is inspected or, worse, when firefighters need it during a fire, Kim said.
"It’s an unfortunate situation," said Honolulu fire Capt. Terry Seelig. Honolulu fire officials notified Oahu companies that install, inspect and maintain fire protection systems about the thefts following Kim’s 2008 warning.
"It’s similar to but different than when people were stealing wiring from the freeway system," Seelig said yesterday.
Honolulu firefighters have several tools and tactics to fight multistory fires, Seelig said. But dry stands "are really an essential aspect of a building’s fire protection system. They’re what we rely upon to connect our fire hoses when we’re pumping water into a pipe system. If it’s not there, we will adapt and do what we need to do, such as stretching hoses from the street. But it is preferable to have the dry-stand pipe system."
Along King Street yesterday, several dry stands were missing their brass covers. Seelig said the real concern comes when thieves steal the heavier brass snoot, which contains the threads that firefighters use to connect their hoses to a building.
"If you don’t have any threads to hook up a fire hose, it becomes inoperable," he said.
Some building owners have replaced their brass caps with cheaper, aluminum copies. But Seelig said he has not seen a snoot made of anything other than brass.
Robert Okuda of Okuda Metal Inc. in Kalihi Kai worked with Honolulu police and state lawmakers to battle the rash of copper wire thefts over the past several years, in part by cutting off the buyers’ end of the market at his family’s business.
So when Okuda began noticing brass snoots coming into the shop, "I began telling my family, ‘Anybody bringing in this stuff who we don’t know, we don’t want it.’
"Now we know what to look for: strange people we don’t know with that kind of stuff. We tell them, ‘You’re not welcomed here.’"