Monday, February 17, 2014


Thanks to a steady stream of winter storms that have plagued the northeast, near record-setting amounts of snow have accumulated and neighborhoods are piled high with plowed and shoveled snow.  The labyrinth of catacombs built from this frosty mess makes driving in the urban and suburban areas quite a challenge.  Streets are narrowed, vision is impeded, and the road surfaces are often sketchy at best.  As a fire safety professional, one of my obvious concerns during this time period is the accessibility of the fire hydrants in the event of an emergency.  

Locating these vital water resources, even during warmer seasons, can be a problem.  There is seldom an understandable pattern for their location to anyone except the most experienced water system grid study bugs.  Left side, right side, middle of the block… it is anybody’s guess.  Parked vehicles, shrubbery, weeds, and even those mailboxes that look like single-seat outhouses can obstruct line-of-sight vision of responders.  Keep in mind, also, that the forward-riding firefighters with the windshield view of the world have a host of other things on their mind as they approach a fire scene.  The apparatus operator is looking for traffic, pedestrians, overhead obstructions, and the “perfect” vehicle placement, which has to be decided in seconds.  The officer in the “thinking seat” of the apparatus is sizing up the structure and planning a course of action based on the manpower (quality as well as quantity) sitting behind him.  Playing hide-and-go-seek with the closest hydrant is not something either one has time for when every second is precious.  

To make locating them easier, fire departments use a multitude of methods.  First and foremost is standardization of color.  While it may seem cute for hydrants to be decorated like people, or dogs, or blended into the d├ęcor of a property, this camouflage effect is not helpful.  A standard barrel color makes for a consistent target to spot.  Colorful, reflective markings can help, especially at night, and many municipalities have a standard for this type of identification as well.  I have seen stenciled street markings, recessed road reflectors (one of my favorites), sign posts, and even the stripped “antennae” markers prove to be effective as well.  Let’s not discount a good map book, whether paper or electronic, with an accurate spotting of the hydrants in a jurisdiction.  Of course, all of these aids are secondary to knowledgeable personnel who take the time to become familiar with their run areas.  

Then there is the Mother Nature Factor; or her partner in crime, Old Man Winter.  As the frozen precipitation accumulates, it needs to be “relocated” so life goes on, uninterrupted.  Streets need to be plowed, sidewalks and driveways need to be cleared, and parking lots need to be scraped clean to allow safe travel.  What one vital device sit right smack in the middle of it all?  The FIRE HYDRANT!  While I understand that the likelihood of needing the fire hydrant near your house is extremely slim, the consequence of NOT having it available could be catastrophic!  Yet, people continue to gamble by taking the risk. 
Yesterday, I was taking my truck for “a walk” around the neighborhood, taking in the sights of the latest winter snowpocalypse.  While I would like to say I was amazed at what I saw, that stopped happening years ago.   Not only did I find hydrants that had not been shoveled out, I actually found one that had been completely buried by blown snow!   I would guess this house had a value of about $275,000, and estimated contents of another $150,000. Adding in the $80,000 of vehicles in the driveway (which, by the way, was clear and dry) and we have eclipsed a half million dollars of combustible property gambling that the 500 gallons of water in the first arriving engine will be enough to save everything.  The hand-laid herringbone walkway was whistle clean, as was the sidewalk that traversed the front of the property.  I even noticed that extra effort was made to clear the snow from in front of the satellite dish on the rooftop.  The clear path to the front of the brick mailbox was a nice touch as well; they wouldn’t want their mail carrier to be delayed in putting the latest issue of Fortune magazine in there, right?  They apparently felt that clearing the numbers from the side of the mailbox wasn’t necessary either, since they weren’t ordering a pizza for delivery any time soon.  Hell, there was even a spot in the grass cleared so your pampered puppy could poop without getting her precious posterior in the snow.  But what did my trained eye spot?  About 10 inches of the tippy-top of the fiberglass marking post that I can only assume is bolted to the hydrant about four feet under the man-made mountain of snow deposited conveniently on top of it. 
I don’t want to pick on just these cement-heads, there are many more like them.  I can’t believe the lack of concern by not only people, but entire neighborhoods.  I even passed a hydrant that was used less than a year ago at a rather significant house fire on the block.  You would think at least ONE of the folks that live on that block would be concerned enough to spend the five minutes it would take to shovel the hydrant clear.  Well, I would think that, other firefighters would think that, but would YOU think that? 

In an emergency, responders do not have the time, or extra manpower it takes to find and uncover your fire hydrant. 

Please take the time to walk your shovel to the fire hydrant closest to your home.  Use it to clear a circle around the hydrant so firefighters can operate it without delay.  Clear ALL THREE OUTLETS as well.  Try to picture how much room a charged hose line will need.  Three feet on all asides would be ideal.  If the snow mountains around it are high, try to knock them back so the hydrant is VISIBLE from the cab of an approaching fire engine.  Finally, be sure it is accessible from the sidewalk side as well as the street side, that way both dogs AND firefighters will be happy!  Then go get a big mug of hot chocolate or coffee, and curse that damn groundhog for these extra six weeks of winter.