Firefighters dispatched to a Lake­ville restaurant last summer were confronted with an unpleasant surprise, a situation waiting for emergency crews in a number of Twin Cities suburbs.

The nearest fire hydrant didn't work.

They rushed to a second hydrant and were able to quickly extinguish the small fire. But Fire Chief Mike Meyer said they were fortunate. "There's a time loss. You wind up diverting people away from extinguishing the fire to dragging the hose," he said.

The unsettling situation was discovered in other suburbs, too. While most hydrants are owned and maintained by cities, some communities also have ones that are privately owned. They were often installed at apartment and townhouse complexes but also can be found next to strip malls, warehouses and some churches.

And many of them didn't work.

City officials in Burnsville, Lake­ville and Eagan discovered last year that most owners weren't maintaining their hydrants and didn't even know they should. "They were under the impression their hydrants were public, and that the city was taking care of them," said Steve Albrecht, Burnsville's public works director.

In some cases, decades had passed with the hydrants uninspected. Tests suggest that as many as one in five of the private hydrants in the cities don't work.

Minnesota's fire code requires that all hydrants be inspected annually and kept in working order.

In addition to Lakeville, Burnsville also knows of at least one instance in which firefighters have shown up to a fire and the first hydrant they tried didn't work. They also were able to switch to other nearby hydrants in time. "We all had been lucky, but the potential is there," Albrecht said.

Burnsville and other neighboring cities have begun contacting private hydrant owners, letting them know they'll need to document inspections and take care of repairs. In most cases, owners will have the option of hiring outside contractors to do the work or have the city do it and bill them.

"We're trying to be proactive, and the owners have been supportive," Albrecht said.

Burnsville was the first in Dakota County to come across the potential safety hazard when it began testing public and private hydrants as part of a project to upgrade them with new nozzles.

"It was concerning," Albrecht said. The tests led the city to conclude that 15 to 20 percent of its 1,300 private hydrants were not functioning.

Burnsville shared what it had learned with public works and fire departments in neighboring cities, which did their own round of checks and found similar results.

"It was an 'Aha! moment,' " said Russ Matthys, public works director in Eagan, where more than 500 of the city's 4,000 hydrants are privately owned.

Close calls

Firefighters responding to last summer's small fire at the Chart House restaurant in Lakeville initially hooked up their hoses to the non-working hydrant as a backup to the water supply in their truck, Meyer said. Diverting firefighters to move the hose to a second hydrant could have had serious consequences, he said.

Burnsville firefighters encountered a similar situation last year with a small fire at the Arbor Vista mobile home park. "You assign personnel to a fire based on the assumption that the first hydrant works," said Fire Chief B.J. Jungmann. In addition to problems resulting from diverting people to a different task, using a longer hose can lower water pressure, making it more difficult to put fires out. "We carry 600 to 700 gallons of water in our trucks, but that sometimes can go pretty quickly," Jungmann said.

Meyer and Jungmann said owners of the two businesses have fixed the non-working hydrants. Spokesmen for the Chart House and Arbor Vista declined to be interviewed.

Albrecht said Burnsville and the other cities worked together to make their new rules on private hydrants similar. "We didn't want to have a company doing business in two cities to have different requirements that made business difficult," he said.

Older cities have dealt with the issue of private fire hydrants for many years because much of their commercial development occurred several decades ago. Bloomington has had procedures for inspecting and maintaining private fire hydrants for at least 20 years, according to Greg Randahl, a senior utility service specialist for the city.

Albrecht and Matthys said their cities are confronting the issue now because many private fire hydrants are now about 30 years old. In some cases they might not have been inspected since they were installed when a commercial property was built.

"We're not a brand new city anymore," Matthys said.