From The Editor | July 15, 2015

Beat The Heat: How To Fight Fire Hydrant Abuse

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

To overheated summer residents, they are a free trip to the waterpark. To utilities, they seem more like a flood of money spilling down the street. Any way you look at it, an illegally opened fire hydrant is a lot of lost water.

The broken hydrant may be an icon of the summer, synonymous with ice cream trucks and water guns as amusing neighborhood ways to fight sweltering temperatures. But those looking for a fun way to cool down their blocks probably don’t realize the damage they’re doing.

A Hot Button Issue

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reported that “illegally opened fire hydrants release more than 1,000 gallons of water per minute.”

Errantly discharging hydrants can also reduce water pressure, making it difficult to fight neighborhood fires and can waste police resources as officers are often called to dissipate abusers or direct traffic around the floods. Many of the myriad costs traditionally associated with broken water mains overlap into those caused by broken hydrants. There have even been cases of death stemming from improper hydrant use.

With those expenses in mind, and bolstered by a 2008 estimation that open fire hydrants cost tax payers $1 million per year, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) launched an aggressive media campaign to put an end to the abuse which may serve as a model for utilities hoping to convert their own communities.

“Loss of nonrevenue water and the risk to the public that an open hydrant brings inspired the PWD hydrant abuse campaign,” said John Digiulio, a PWD spokesperson. “Additionally, improper operation of a hydrant by the public can cause damage to the hydrant as well as break the water main. With illegal activity, the possibility exists that the hydrant may not be available to the Fire Department, and lives can be put at risk.”

Putting Out The Fire

PWD’s efforts have included media outreach, marketing campaigns, and direct appeals to constituents.

“We have not found a method that 100 percent eradicates the problem, but through diligence, public outreach, and education, you will see results,” said Digiulio. “Speaking to people about the risks associated has really brought some results as well. Letting neighbors know that an open hydrant can lead to a broken water main, damage to their homes and cars, possible loss of life, or severe bodily injury, they will be more vigilant and call to report an open hydrant. In the past, if people didn’t know what the risks were, they were much less likely to be our eyes on the street.”

DEP sponsors a similar campaign, the acronymic HEAT, which enlists New York teens to educate their neighbors about the dangers and costs of illegally opening fire hydrants. Between 2007 and 2014, the program saw a 50 percent reduction in abuse reports during June and July.

Although these outreach tactics have found success, Digiulio recommends supplementing them with some hardware.

“We have seen a decrease [in hydrant abuse] for a number of reasons, hopefully the education behind the problem being one of the leading causes,” he said. “However, PWD began installing a new mechanism to make it more difficult to open [hydrants] illegally. Instead of using the traditional wrench, there is now a center compression lock (CCL) on them. They have been placed on approximately 70 percent of our fire hydrants.”

A cornerstone of the DEP’s HEAT program is the distribution of free, City-approved spray caps, which can be affixed to hydrants and allow residents to release 20 to 25 gallons per minute.

“By reminding people that there is a safe and legal way to use hydrants to cool off during the hot summer months, the young New Yorkers who participate in the HEAT program help keep their neighbors and our first responders safe,” said DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd in a public statement last year.

Some manufacturers, like Mueller Systems, offer “smart hydrants” which can identify abuse themselves by recording use data and transmitting it remotely to utilities.

Catching Heat

New York and Philadelphia might be leading the public awareness effort, but they aren’t the only cities to face costs from fire hydrant abuse. Baltimore, Detroit, and Milwaukee have joined the fight as well, among other cities.

“I’d make an educated guess that every major city in the U.S. has people that open hydrants illegally to stay cool and combat the heat,” said Digiulio.

Whether it’s by spreading the word or introducing new technology, it’s up to utilities to drop hydrant abuse like it’s hot.