By Homer Robertson
Published Thursday, September 1, 2011
| From the September 2011 Issue of FireRescue
Last year, I shared some tips on how to deal with common problems the hydrant firefighter faces when forward-laying a supply line into a fire scene. Following that article, I got some calls and e-mails from readers who shared their own stories and asked if I could give a few more examples.
A continuous water supply is a key component of the operational plan and incident safety at a structure fire. In a forward-lay scenario, the firefighter at the hydrant is one of the most important parts of the water supply puzzle. Their job has to be done right—and quickly—to properly support fireground operations.
Out of Service
As local governments face budget shortfalls, more streets and hydrants won’t be maintained as they should be. Not long ago, I read how in Detroit, more than 10,000 fire hydrants are out of service, and the city doesn’t have the money to repair them. Think about the crews in that city responding to fires, knowing that there’s a good chance at any fire that the hydrant they need won’t be operational.
Whatever the reasons for out-of-service hydrants, there are some things you can do to be prepared. First, think about the reasons why this can happen—the below-ground valve might be closed or the stem broken. Take some time to think through each possible situation and be ready to defeat it or work around it.
If your department uses the forward-lay often and doesn’t have the most dependable hydrant system, slow down just a little at the hydrant before you forward-lay into the fire. This gives the firefighter at the hydrant time to quickly dismount the apparatus, remove the cap and open the hydrant valve a little to make sure the hydrant isn’t dry. This prevents you from laying out hundreds of feet of hose and then finding you have tapped a dry hydrant. If you’ve ever done this, you know the feeling when you open the hydrant and nothing but air comes out. It’s nearly impossible for you to recover from and may require another company to get water to the fire. Checking the operational readiness of the hydrant before you lay out will be a time-saver later.
Debris in the Hydrant
When you open the valve to make sure you have water, it’s a good time to flush the hydrant of any debris in the barrel of the hydrant and/or sand and small rocks that can be in the underground water lines. This is especially important if you find loose or missing caps, because people may have stuffed cans, balls or trash down the barrel. Sand and small rocks may settle in the water line for years, but they can be dislodged with the increased flow from opening the hydrant. All of that foreign matter can restrict the flow and damage the pump if it gets past the screen after going down the supply line.
When flushing the hydrant, don’t open the valve all the way; this will force the debris to the top of the hydrant barrel, preventing it from leaving through the discharge. Instead, open the valve just enough so that you get water flowing out of about half the discharge. I like to use the biggest discharge available so that items in the barrel of the hydrant are discharged. In my area, we normally see 4" and 4½" steamer discharges on our hydrants. Continue flowing until the water runs clear or you need to start the flow to the fire.
Note: Some readers will disagree and say that this isn’t the right time to flush the hydrant, but you should have more than enough time to do so while the engine lays into the fire, breaks the line from the hosebed and makes the connection to the pump. And it ensures you have a good water supply.
Missing Caps & Rounded Stems
Missing hydrant caps are a concern. If the discharge of choice is missing its cap, all is well because you’re going to use that discharge anyway. But when we need to use the steamer connection and one or more caps is missing from the other connections, that becomes a problem, especially in the forward-lay, where the hydrant firefighter is often alone, without any help or extra equipment. For this reason, consider carrying an extra 2½" cap in a hydrant bag along with an assortment of tools and equipment for forward-lay operations. In a reverse-lay, it’s a lot easier because you have the apparatus to support you. There should be all sorts of fittings that you can use to shut off the flow, including extra nozzles and caps from the apparatus discharges.
Another issue you may face: a rounded stem. Hydrant stems are made of brass, which is a very soft metal. Even if you don’t have a lot of fires, hydrants can get a lot of use from local construction contractors or other groups that may need to use large amounts of water—in my area it’s the oil and gas industry. All these groups use big pipe wrenches to access the hydrant, which can quickly damage the brass stem by rounding the corners. Most fire service hydrant wrenches, in contrast, are square or five-point, which makes a good fit and doesn’t damage the hydrant stem.
If the stem has been rounded, it may be nearly impossible to open with your fire department wrench. It’s always a good idea to have a pipe wrench with you for these occasions. Take time to inspect hydrants in areas that are close to road and construction sites to identify those that need to be repaired.
Caps on Too Tight
Sometimes it’s not the missing caps that are a problem, it’s that the cap is on so tight that a normal human being has a hard time removing it. Hydrant caps must be tightened enough so that the neighborhood kids can’t take them off and sell them for scrap, but not so tight that it takes the entire crew to get them off.
But we’re not always the last ones to put the cap back on, so we need to be prepared for extra-tight caps. Carry a short section of pipe (two to three feet), just big enough to slide over the handle of your hydrant wrench, making the handle longer and giving you some mechanical advantage. In my part of the world, we call that a “cheater pipe,” but I’m sure you may have another name for it. One note of caution: When attempting to open the hydrant with a cheater pipe, you can create a lot of force that can break the stem or valve if you’re not careful.
One other note about caps: Before you open the hydrant, make sure you tighten the caps on the unused hydrant discharge ports. Whoever used it last may not have tightened them down completely; when the hydrant is charged, these caps can become projectiles that can take you out at the knees, damage apparatus or hit bystanders on a busy street. Check before you charge the hydrant!
Hydrants blocked by illegally parked cars or dumpsters can cause big delays in producing needed water. We’ve all seen pictures of fire departments that have used some innovative methods to neutralize cars—for example, taking out the car’s glass and passing the hose through the car to connect to the hydrant. It worked for Kurt Russell in Backdraft, but it may not work for you in real life. Take the time to make a sound fireground decision before laying a supply line that involves connecting to a blocked hydrant.
If you’re committed to using a hydrant that has its larger steamer blocked, or you can’t get the steamer cap off, what’s your plan B to get water flowing? Some would argue that you need move to another hydrant. But using one of the 2½" ports to get some water to the fire is better than nothing.
Water supply issues due to hydrant problems can make or break you on the fireground. Each time you fill up your tank water or test hydrants, discuss hydrant operations with your crew and how you would deal with various situations you might face. It’s just a matter of time before you’re going to need to draw on those solutions.
To read more from Homer Robertson, visit www.firefighternation.com/author/homer-robertson.
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