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As summer 2021 heats up, Philadelphians are turning to an old tradition to stay cool: opening fire hydrants.
It appears to be happening more than usual this year, city data shows. This summer, over a quarter of the city’s public pools will stay closed due to a lifeguard shortage, leaving mostly low-income neighborhoods that already lack cooling resources without an accessible way to beat the heat.
The practice has been common in Philly for as long as many residents remember.
It’s currently illegal, but it used to be totally allowed. You could even put in a request for the Philadelphia Fire Department to install a spray cap attachment.
In 2008, the city established a new policy that restricted use of hydrants to city personnel and approved contractors.
A city release at the time noted that recreational use of fire hydrants was “a bad idea that wastes water, money and manpower, and puts the health and lives of hundreds, sometimes even thousands at risk.”
Lots of people still open hydrants anyway.
In June 2021, the Water Department recorded more than 175 hydrant shutoff requests, said city spokesperson Sarah Peterson. Some of them could have been for regular leaks, but altogether that’s an average of about six shutoff requests per day — a rate that’s 5% higher than four years ago.
A 1991 Pediatrics study revealed that out of 86 children who were hurt playing in fire hydrants, all of them lived in an urban setting — and 97% of them were children of color. The most common injury was scraped feet from stepping in broken glass. “Injuries occurred on extremely hot summer days,” the study reads, in neighborhoods “with few alternative means for keeping cool.”
There’s plenty of reason for residents to be confused about whether street sprinklers are allowed or not.
A decade after the city’s hydrant policy changed, and sprinklers were officially cut off, block party instructions on the Streets Department website still indicated people could request spray caps to enhance their day of outdoor fun.
Officials confirmed to Billy Penn in 2018 that was an error, and eventually updated the site with the correct info — no sprinklers.
But things changed again in 2020, when Parks & Rec couldn’t open any public pools at all due to the pandemic. City employees were dispatched to open hydrants in some neighborhoods last summer “for extreme heat purposes,” Peterson said.
“That [was] the rare exception,” she added. “The city provides a variety of safe options for staying cool so that fire hydrants can be protected for fighting fires.”
City officials clarified that this year, it’s not allowed anymore.
They cited safety, wasted water, and damage to the hydrants and nearby properties as their primary concerns. People who break that law can be fined up to $300, and they might be on the hook to pay to fix any lasting damages, per Peterson.
Asked about neighborhoods that don’t have easy pool access, Peterson said cooling kits will be distributed later this month to about 100 blocks participating in the Playstreets program. The kits include a tent for shade, a 30-gallon water cooler, and water toys.
Said Peterson, “We are prioritizing getting Playstreets cooling kits to those areas without a pool or sprayground nearby.”
The city has several dozen spraygrounds — find them mapped here.