The fire hydrant at the northwest corner of Damen and Fulton is “restless”. In Department of Water Management jargon, this means you can hear the water vibrating inside the cylinder, an indication that the neoprene seal inside is broken and leaking.
A leaking fire hydrant wastes water and freezes in the winter, rendering it unusable — which is common, on really cold days the Chicago Fire Department routinely sends four fire engines to a really big fire, operating north, south, east, and west of the fire to make sure that enough functioning hydrants are tapped.
The public is generally unaware of the important role of the water authority in fighting fires – any fire rated 2-11 or higher will require the deployment of a hydrant truck. Their steamers can thaw a fire hydrant in 10 minutes, and sometimes a main needs to be shut off in order for the CFD to remove their hoses, but this can lead to another complication – the main needs to be turned back on. When old McCormick Place burned down in January 1967, the blame lay with surrounding fire hydrants, most of which were not working. Not because it was frozen, as initially thought, but because a valve that was supposed to be open was closed.
So a troubled hydrant cannot be ignored – it can make the difference between life and death. A week ago on Friday, one of the Water Board's four hydrant repair trucks was dispatched to repair the hydrant at Fulton & Damen.
Not an easy task.
It would be a lot easier if they shut off the main line — but that would also shut off the water supply to blocks in the area, including the Chicago Teachers' Union headquarters across the street and a bunch of hip brewpubs nearby. For hours. The work would have to be done at night, which means overtime for a crew of four.
Pulling out a hydrant's gasket while it's still pressurized and replacing it with a new one requires a large, complicated tool that the Water Board calls a “pistol” — a 10-foot-tall assembly of pipes, part tent pole, part giant socket wrench that easily weighs 200 pounds. It seals the hydrant so that it can be opened under pressure. Only one company in the world makes them to match Chicago's unique fire hydrant style, and occasionally a pickup truck comes to pick up a broken gun and take it back to Texas for repairs. Water workers, with occasional blushes, refer to the process as “jerking.”
Dangerous work for them – and passers-by
Setting up the device takes about an hour for the truck crew – Kevin Franklin, Robert Laws, Dorian Minor and Supervisor Charlie Brown, who together have been in the field for well over a century. Three are wearing bright orange rain pants – fire hydrants are a foot from the curb and, speaking of pressure, speeding vehicles pose a constant hazard to workers. Careless pedestrians stumbling by put themselves at risk.
“We have to be concerned for their safety and ours,” Laws said.
Tragedy happens. In late June, a water board plumber who was investigating a leak in the street next to the Old Post Office was hit by a Chevrolet Tahoe and seriously injured.
“This guy just ran them over,” said Daniel Misch, construction and maintenance manager for the Ministry of Water Management. “He didn't even know he hit her.”
The head of the hydrant is removed, the threads of the gun coated in cooking grease – an edible lubricant since it could theoretically flow back up the water pipe and eventually spill out of your kitchen faucet.
The weapon is pulled from the horizontal to the vertical with a winch and screwed to the barrel. Or, in an ideal world, would it be one where the screws line up the way they're supposed to. In the real world, on the corner of Fulton and Damen, at 10 a.m. on a Friday, the bolts are a quarter inch off.
“It's definitely off-center,” Minor said. “Nothing like that ever happens. I do not know why.”
The crew tries various brute force solutions using two-pound hammer drills and pry bars to realign the bolts while trying to get the gun into position. Losing fingers is also a problem that they look at philosophically. “They have nine others,” Misch quipped.
Fire hydrants in Chicago stand out
While they're working, we can check the hydrant situation in Chicago.
About 48,000 Chicago-standard fire hydrants are spread across the city — about three per block, at each end and in the middle, so they're about 300 feet apart. They are unique dual port outlets that are wider than suburban fire hydrants.
“We're the only ones with a 4.5-inch connection,” said Misch. “If you look at the suburban fire hydrants, they have a two or two and a half inch connection. We run at low pressure and higher volume. Where there is high pressure in many suburbs.”
All are painted red – if you see a green hydrant, it's privately owned.
Chicago hydrants are manufactured at the East Jordan Foundry in Elmira, Michigan – all but one by Mueller, an experimental sui generis hydrant that was placed outside the Department of Water at 3901 Ashland.
A fire hydrant is like an iceberg – most of it is out of sight. About two feet stick out of the street, then another five feet underground, reaching to the water main. Some feature color-coded ties that reveal which main they are attached to and give firefighters an indication of how much water can be pulled out without sucking out the main.
To open a fire hydrant, a firefighter twists the nut at the top, which is attached to a set screw, down about six feet, which lifts the seal and allows water to escape. This has to be done just right.
“They are taught at the academy that fire hydrants must be opened slowly and closed slowly so as not to damage the hydrant itself,” CFD spokesman Larry Langford said.
However, training is sometimes forgotten in the excitement of a fire.
“We call them ‘cowboy firefighters,'” Misch said. “If they're overly eager to turn them on, they may break the stem. If they turn down the hydrant too quickly, the water line could burst.”
Leave the hydrants alone
For this reason, the city discourages Chicago civilians from opening fire hydrants, a traditional way to cool off on hot summer days. Valves break and roads are undermined by torrential water – which can also force children into traffic, where they are sometimes killed (the spray masks their presence and motorists driving through the fog hit them). City workers trying to keep fire hydrants closed are sometimes attacked.
“It's very dangerous for me to send men to turn them off,” said Misch. “Everyone is hostile, they don't want you to turn it off. What people don't realize is that when you turn them on, the pressure on the water supply to homes reduces.”
Chicago residents can legally draw water from the fire hydrants in certain situations if they do so Go through the application documents. “Community Gardens, Urban Farms, Festivals and Contractors” are permitted entry if they purchase the necessary wrenches and jigs and pay fees. The cost is $83.78 per day, plus water.
Vandalism is a perennial problem with fire hydrants – they're broken open for a few dollars' worth of brass. The number of thefts has gone down – Misch suspects a combination of her vigilant security chief and catalysts offering thieves higher rewards. In 1964, two children died in a North Wood fire after firefighters pulled up and found the two nearby fire hydrants “dismantled and damaged”. Recycling centers are prohibited by law from accepting hydrant parts.
But as a rule, defective hydrants rarely pose a problem.
“It's not a serious problem,” Langford said. “The beauty of Chicago's fire hydrant system is that the fire hydrants are 300 feet apart in most boroughs. So if there is a failed hydrant system, we are not far from a good one.”
“Use the Axe”
Firefighters have been known to happily slip through the windows of cars parked in front of fire hydrants when they need to run a hose to the fire. Not only was the practice immortalized in the Chicago film Backdraft, it was originally the official CFD guideline.
“Use the axe,” Al Goodrich, the first fire commissioner, urged his department chiefs on October 4, 1927, when it was revealed that 300 fire hydrants in the Loop were regularly blocked by parked cars.
Do firefighters really do that?
“Not too much,” said Misch. “Maybe sooner.” But I haven't heard from it lately.”
After a fire, the hydrant pipe can still be filled with water – there is a 3/4 inch drain at the bottom and if that is clogged the water will be left behind. From now through October, the city's 98 fire departments will be out in their neighborhoods, flushing and emptying hydrants and hand pumping them dry, a process firefighters refer to as “feeding.”
“They make sure the fire hydrants are working,” Langford said.
Speaking of. Finally, in Fulton and Damen, the gun is bolted to the barrel by tilting it and using the pivot bolts to set it in position.
“It works!” said minor. “A little bit more!”
The weapon is a giant socket wrench powered by the truck's hydraulics that can reach five feet under the road and unscrew the stem with its spring-loaded seal.
Hidden in hydrants
The process does not go smoothly. Something is clogging the hydrant. Chicago fire hydrants are used for all sorts of non-aquatic purposes – people hide guns and bags of drugs in them. Bees have taken up residence in Chicago fire hydrants.
“It's amazing what people throw into these things,” Misch said.
The hydrant must be opened. Water geysers explode and hit the building. After much effort, the culprit is revealed – a large black plastic bolt that made its way up the main pipe and got stuck in the hydrant.
“That's a full 20 feet,” says Franklin.
Speculations as to the source of this plastic identify a culprit but are unavailable for publication. Let's just state the obvious: plastic for wrapping around The pipes ended up in it.
“That's why it was leaking,” Laws said.
With this development, the main line has to be switched off anyway. The new valve is finally installed. The work should take one to two hours. Due to the various problems encountered, it will take more than three.
The old handle is discarded, the black neoprene gasket shredded like it's been chewed by bears. water will do that.