By Rahinur Akther
A hydrant rarely freezes, even in bitter winter cold, but when it does can leave firefighters without a sufficient water supply as they battle flames and try to rescue people inside a structure.Winter can be a challenging time for firefighters when it’s not as mild as the current one. In addition to often-bitter weather, fire hydrants occasionally freeze, leaving firefighters rushing to connect to alternative sources.
“A frozen hydrant makes us stop our work,” whether it’s clearing people from an occupied building or putting out a fire, said Brian Gibbs, a firefighter for 10 years and a ladder man at Firehouse 307154 on Northern Boulevard in Queens.
This firehouse is a busy one, responding to 380 calls a year. Most of these fires occur during the winter, caused by people attempting to stay warm with candles, wooden stoves and space heaters.
For the Fire Department of New York, September through December is the busiest four-month period. Department records show that in 2010, in Queens alone there were 4,785 fire situations requiring a response.
Firehouse 307154 has two trucks to handle a fire, an engine (sometimes called a pumper) with a water tank and hoses, and another with ladders and other equipment (the hook-and-ladder). Each engine tank holds 500 gallons of water – enough to spray on a fire for three minutes. Any other water used has to be pumped from nearby hydrants or another truck.
Fortunately, frozen hydrants are relatively rare, perhaps an average of 10 to 20 in each borough during a rough winter, says Austin Horan, a deputy chief and member of FDNY for 32 years who teaches courses on legal aspects of fire and emergency services at Rockland Community College in Rockland County.
Hydrants “are designed so they do not freeze,” Horan says. “When a hydrant is opened, a barrel that goes 10 feet into the ground fills with water. That is well below the frost line. When you close a hydrant, all the water in the barrel has to drain out through a hole in the bottom. Only if the drain valve is defective will a hydrant freeze. “All hydrants are inspected in the spring and fall; we check to see it is draining and it is reported for repair then. So very few hydrants freeze in the winter.”
When the air temperature falls below 25 degrees for more then 24 hours, firefighters selectively test hydrants; though, with at least two to four hydrants on every block in the city, there are far too many to check each one. When frozen hydrants are found, they are marked out of service and put on a schedule to be defrosted.
The department has a thawing apparatus that uses high-pressure steam to clear the ice and place the hydrant back in service.
On the rare occasion when a hydrant does freeze, firefighters hook their hoses into the nearest hydrant, and at the same time issue a radio warning to all firefighters that water may be in short supply.
Joe Matz, who has been working at Firehouse 307154 since 2003, says that last winter firefighters responded to a fire in a six-story building two blocks from Elmhurst Hospital. The nearest hydrant was frozen, Matz says, and the 500 gallons of water from the engine’s tank was not sufficient to put out the flames.
Reinforcements were called, including an additional engine, and luckily, he says, no one was injured or died in the blaze.
When hydrants are found to be frozen, they are marked out of service and put on a schedule to be defrosted. A thawing apparatus uses high pressure steam to clear the ice and places the hydrant back in service.
“It takes a matter of 5 to 10 minutes,” Horan says. “The problem is that we have only one per borough,” a total of five in a city with many thousands of hydrants.