Firefighters count heavily on fire hydrants, but they prepare to do their work without them if necessary.
“From time to time, we catch a hydrant that is not operating properly,” Oklahoma City Deputy Fire Chief Marc Woodard said.
Fire crews prepare for that possibility by sending a rig to a nearby hydrant should they find one that is not in working order.
When there's no working hydrant nearby, firefighters rely on tankers, which carry 500 gallons of water, and heavy tankers, which can hold up to 2,500 gallons, Woodard said.
“They're spread out over 621 square miles,” Woodard said of the hydrants. “There's going to be a lot of that (area) not covered by hydrants.”
Woodard said the fire department is not looking to increase the number of hydrants in the city, but that decision ultimately lies with the city council and neighborhood developers, as they're the ones who would pay for them.
Hydrants are generally spaced 600 to 800 feet apart, and only one engine is assigned to each plug when fighting a fire. An average of 400 gallons per minute flow from the hydrants, but that varies depending on water pressure in the area, Woodard said.
Oklahoma City tests each of its 21,000 fire hydrants at least once a year, Woodard said.
Those hydrants cost just over $1,000 apiece for the hydrant itself, and about $100 per foot for the piping connecting them to the water main, Oklahoma City utilities spokeswoman Debbie Ragan said. Since there are between 40 and 70 different parts inside the hydrant, they're only replaced when parts become impossible to find, she said.
Firefighters have an equation for estimating how much water they'll need. If a building is engulfed by fire, the length of the structure is multiplied by its width, and that number is divided by three to determine how many gallons of water will be needed to put out the fire, Woodard said.
The Utilities Department estimates that 1 to 2 million gallons of water are expended on firefighting in Oklahoma City each year at a cost of between $2,700 and $5,500, Ragan said.
Woodard said Oklahoma City's hydrants all are painted the same color, but some cities paint their hydrants different colors based on gallons per minute output.
“We have adequate pressure in all of them, but some are lower than others,” Woodard said. Pressure near Lake Hefner will be higher than in some of the rural areas on the edge of the city limits. Citywide pressure problems during this summer's high water usage days have not significantly impacted firefighting, he said.
A casualty of state funding cuts was the state forestry department's rural hydrant program. The program was launched in 1992, but funding stopped in 2010, rural fire coordinator Gary Williams said.
Over the years of the program, about 1,800 red-and-black hydrants were installed across the state, he said.
“It started out back in the day at about $50,000, and in the last year, it had dwindled to about $5,000,” Williams said.
Williams said the current strategy is to convert retired Defense Department vehicles into fire trucks that can haul water.
“It's better to have a mobile source than a stationary source, that's my opinion,” Williams said.
“If we had the extra money, great, we'd try to continue it. But with limited resources, we're better focused on the tanker trucks. I think it's a good program direction.”