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

An open hydrant on E. 149th St. in the South Bronx

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

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