City crews put damper on hot hydrant parties

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | June 25, 2009 | A1

ST. LOUIS – Dennis Tullock has been something of a killjoy lately, prowling the streets in his white Ford Ranger.

Tullock is a foreman with the St. Louis Water Division, and when fire hydrants are cracked open for a little relief from the searing weather, it’s Tullock or his crew who usually turn up to turn off the spray.

In polite terms, Tullock is like the Grinch Who Stole Summer Fun.

“Sometimes they curse us when we close down a hydrant. Every now and then, somebody tosses a rock,” Tullock said Wednesday, driving through north St. Louis. “I get it. It’s hot, and I’m the guy that takes their fun.”

The idea of cooling off with an open fire hydrant might seem obsolete in this air-conditioned era. But it still is prevalent in older neighborhoods, particularly poorer ones. On Monday, city crews closed off almost 50 hydrants. On Tuesday, crews shut down 97.

Public and private water officials say there are significant dangers in opening hydrants. Open hydrants disrupt water pressure and can lead to main breaks, boil orders and lots of wasted manpower.

Firefighters are also frustrated. A standard way of opening a hydrant involves a sledgehammer, and damaged, out-of-order hydrants make putting out fires more difficult.

The spray of the water and kids playing in the street also presents a traffic hazard. And there’s the general inconvenience when residents of a neighborhood can’t wash dishes or take a shower because of a lack of pressure.

“There’s a lot of problems when just anybody goes and breaks one open,” said Jim Kummer, fiscal manager for the city Water Division. “And unfortunately at this time of year, it’s pretty widespread.”

To compensate, the city’s Chain of Rocks water treatment plant went from pumping 87 million gallons a day last Thursday up to 166 million gallons Wednesday. Most of that use, Kummer said, is from open hydrants.

Under city ordinance, tampering with a hydrant can draw a $1,000 fine, but Kummer said he can’t remember when someone was ticketed.

Tullock said as soon as he closes down a hydrant, another one is opened.

“It’s hydrant season,” Tullock said.

Though most hydrants have recessed valves that require a “hydrant key,” tools sometimes fall into the wrong hands. People now and then also get lucky with a crescent wrench or crafty with some supplies from a hardware store.

On Wednesday, at Genevieve and Harney avenues, an opened hydrant sprayed water a dozen feet in the air. The spray was sent upward by a board placed in front of the flow, and held in place by a couple of tires.

“See how hot it is,” said Chassidy Howard, 32, who watched her sons, niece and neighbors play in the water. “This is the ghetto. We just don’t have pools. A lot of houses don’t have central air. Someone comes along and turns that thing on? Of course we’ll be outside.”

Tullock closed off the hydrant and moved on.

Next, Tullock met his crew at Harris Avenue and Green Lea Place, where 9-year-old Bryant Lewis and his buddies were taking turns seeing how long they could withstand the blast.

“It’s hot. I was just here five minutes,” Lewis said.

Officials would like residents to instead use the 20 or so sprinklers, attached to hydrants, set around the city up by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. A couple of blocks from the open hydrant on Green Lea, a sprinkler sat dry and unhooked.

Tullock then checked on reports of eight to 10 open hydrants near St. Louis and Lambdin avenues. He closed down a couple, before stopping at a blocked-off street at Newhouse Avenue and 22nd Street. Another tire-and-board contraption sent water 20 feet into the air. About two dozen kids and adults hung around. Music thumped from a car, and somebody brought out a cooler and a barbecue.

“This is the closest thing to a water park that we got,” Victor Wilson, 42, said. “Not everybody can afford to get out and go far away to Six Flags.”

Wilson said he understood the Fire Department’s concerns, but he said neighbors turn off the hydrant when they’re done (this one wasn’t damaged). And, he said, these kids were staying out of trouble.

As Tullock wrenched the hydrant closed, Wilson added with a smile, “All I’m saying: Don’t close it too tight.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply