It's OK to Open that Fire Hydrant... But Just a Little Bit

Friday, August 02, 2013

An open hydrant on E. 149th St. in the South Bronx (Beth Fertig/WNYC)

In a hot summer day, for those far from the beach, or a lake, there is always the fire hydrant. But open hydrants waste water and make it hard for firefighters to do their jobs. That's why the city is trying to get more people to take advantage of a safer alternative that allows them to open hydrants just a little.

A fitted cap with a few holes in it can make a gentle and legal sprinkler out of a regular hydrant that would normally gush when opened. The city’s been distributing these sprinkler caps (also called spray caps) for decades. But Environmental Protection Commissioner Carter Strickland says New Yorkers still need to be reminded about them.

"An illegally opened hydrant pumps out 1000 gallons per minute," he said. "It’s really a torrent, and that is wasteful water. It’s also dangerous, can knock kids over and flood the street."

Anyone 18 or older can ask their local firehouse to install a cap. The DEP now sends out teams of young people each summer to tell New Yorkers about the spray caps, and to explain why it’s illegal to open a fire hydrant and what to do if they see one flooding their street.

HEAT Outreach

On a scorching hot day in July, members of the Hydrant Education Action Team roamed around Inwood Park with flyers in Spanish and English.

"Give me one fact of a fire hydrant being open," 20 year-old Jefry Ortiz asked a couple of teens. 

"Oh, that it wasted the water so that when there’s a fire then you can’t use it," said 15-year-old Rewell Ramirez.

Ortiz smiled and raised his hand for a high five.

There are 48 high school and college students working for HEAT through the summer youth employment program. They’ve been walking around the Bronx and Washington Heights, which DEP says are hotspots for open hydrants.

The city claims the outreach program’s working because the number of complaints about open fire hydrants fell from nearly 30,000 during the summer of 2005 to just under 22,000 last year. This year, about 14,000 calls came in during June and the first three weeks of July.

A Damper on Fun?

The outreach workers are up against one big obstacle, though: open hydrants are a lot of fun.

On East 149th Street in the South Bronx, the icy blast of an open hydrant was a welcome oasis from the baking heat on a recent weekday. A few neighborhood kids took turns playing while an adult named Harold Walker looked on before joining them in the water.

"You got to be, I guess creative," he said, as he straddled the hydrant and sat right into the gushing water. He said some people use a can to direct the spray, but he used his knees.

Eleven-year-old Serena Warren ventured next to the hydrant and tried to fill up a bucket. But it went flying into the two-way traffic because of the strength of the water. She squealed and chased after the bucket, being careful to avoid cars.

"It’s fun but it’s hard," she said.

The students doing outreach also think kids, in particular, need to see that sprinkler caps aren’t a big, well, damper.

On Academy Street in Inwood last month, the local Police Athletic League got the fire department to turn on a hydrant with a sprinkler cap.

Ten year-old Alanna Criss ran into the arc of water created by the fire hydrant as friends joined her. When asked how it compared to the gushing hydrants she sometimes sees in the neighborhood, she said, "It’s pretty much the same but this is a little funner."

The reason? She said she didn't have to worry about getting hurt.

With production assistance from Jeannie Choi

Beth Fertig/WNYC
Open hydrant in the South Bronx, E. 149th Street on July 18, 2013
Jim O'Grady/WNYC
Hydrant that appears to have spray cap, Williamsburg, July 2013
Amy Pearl/WNYC
Hydrant with sprinkler cap, President Street and Fifth Avenue, Park Slope
Hydrant with spray cap, Prospect Place and Franklin Ave, Brooklyn
Lalena Howard/Instagram
Hydrant with spray cap, 17th Street and 6th Avenue, Brooklyn
Hydrant with spray cap, Irving Avenue and Melrose Street, Bushwick
Beth Fertig/WNYC
Grand Concourse and 153rd Street, Bronx, DEP demonstrating hydrant with sprinkler cap.
Jody Avirgan/WNYC
Open hydrant, Bergen between Nostrand and Rogers in Crown Heights.
Alison Murphy/WNYC
Hydrant with sprinkler cap, West 92nd Street between Columbus and Central Park West in July
Vicki Elkins/WNYC
On W. 172nd and Haven in Washington Heights. DEP says if this is a spray cap, it's not working properly.
Sean Rameswaram/WNYC
Hydrant with spray cap, 54th Street, Flushing
Claire Callan/Instagram
A patriotic hydrant, 177 Skillman Ave., Williamsburg
Beth Fertig/WNYC
At the NYC Fire Museum, prints show that the first pressurized hydrant opened in Lower Manhattan in 1808 and it appears that New Yorkers have been opening them in the summer ever since.


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [10]

Dj Boy from Washington Heights/Inwood, NYC

Thanks for this article. I loved the little girl's quote at the end, at least she cares about her safety lol.
I made a video a couple of years ago on the beauty of fire hydrants and everything else in the summer, search "Summer In The Heights" and you'll find it on youtube or vimeo.
It was shot in Inwood, NYC, mostly a block away from that spot on Academy you referred to.

Aug. 15 2013 01:47 AM
Dave in the Bronx from uptown

Having lived during my life in areas that were drought stricken, it bothers me to see disregard for wasting water.
When I lived on the border between Clinton Hills and Bed Stuy, I'd ride around at night with a pair of channel lock pliers and close the hydrants I could. Forget the cost, decreases in water pressure for the fire department should be considered here, as well as the cost, and the WASTE of a natural resource.
If you're going to open the hydrant, then at least close it when you're done for the day.

Aug. 04 2013 11:05 PM
Eddy from Brooklyn

When I was a kid, back in the 70's, the sprinkler caps were considered a drag. We (feral street kids) much preferred the full open hydrant.

@ DT
As far as I know, there are no "official" or legally defined borders between neighborhoods recognized by the city.

@ Richard Walter,
The city does not "pay" for water, at least not beyond the operating costs of the water supply system. The city charges its residents for water to help cover those operating costs, which are more or less static. The water is free, rainwater and the system is gravity fed (no pumps required). Therefor, city is not paying anywhere near $3.39 a minute for an open hydrant. Perhaps the only dynamic cost would be, the additional trace chemicals such as chlorine injected into the water, probably costing lest than a penny a minute.

Aug. 03 2013 10:58 AM
DT from Inwood

Thanks for making the correction, and perhaps I shouldn't quibble so much if I can't spell "Lehrer".

But the southern border is a very hot dispute and has been for a long time as the Inwood, Fort George and Washington Heights brand names have waxed and waned. The A-train, the old Jewish Memorial Hospital, the YMHA have all used different names at different times. Would love to see a WNYC story just on that bit of historical geography...

Aug. 02 2013 05:36 PM
john from office

I saw that after it went out. Trust me I know the proper spelling. I also know that many of these kids are fooled into thinking they are college material.

Aug. 02 2013 10:32 AM
Adrianne Hamilton

John from the Office, if you are going to leave a comment that criticizes other people's grammar, you should at least make sure that you spell "barely" correctly - unless you meant to indicate that their language was ursine in nature.

Aug. 02 2013 09:42 AM
Beth Fertig

Hey, apologies! I thought I was on the border. Should have checked Google Maps. I DO know the difference. -Beth Fertig

Aug. 02 2013 09:29 AM
DT from Inwood

Oh WYNC. It's one thing when the Post or News can't tell the difference between Washington Heights and Inwood, but they haven't sent a reporter north of 96th St in years.

I expect better from WNYC when it comes to the home neighborhood of Brian Leher.

Academy Street is in Inwood, not Washington Heights.

Aug. 02 2013 09:12 AM
john from Office

Wow, these "college" and high school kids can bearly speak the language. Poor diction, poor word usage. We are raising a nation of idiots.

Aug. 02 2013 08:49 AM
Richard Walter from New Jersey

Does anyone realize the cost of open fire hydrants. According to NYC water rates ($3.39 / 100 cubic feet = 748 gallons) that open hydrant is costing about $3.39 / minute, about $200. / hour. This cost must be paid by someone. As a former NYC resident, I sympathize with present residents who must absorb these costs blindly in their water rates. Shut the hydrants , send these kids to camp!

Aug. 02 2013 08:09 AM

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