Boston: 13,683 Fire Hydrants, 96 Inches of Snow

Map showing the locations of fire hydrants in Boston
Map showing the locations of fire hydrants in Boston

The city of Boston has 13,683 fire hydrants, and 96 inches of snow.

Even with firefighters heading out twice a day to shovel hydrants, there are still plenty buried under feet of snow.

“You go to some, they’re completely shoveled out. Some are so-so. Others might be completely buried in the snow,’’ said Steve MacDonald, Boston Fire Department spokesperson.

“We just use them. We don’t maintain them,’’ MacDonald said.

While maintenance of hydrants is the responsibility of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, the city’s fire department plays a significant role in ensuring hydrants are accessible and in good working order.

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A leaky fire hydrant in August can mean a frozen hydrant in February.

“We go out in August and physically check every hydrant in the city,’’ MacDonald said.

With close to 100 inches of snow on the ground, firefighters in Greater Boston are spending significant parts of their shifts digging out, and then re-digging out, thousands and thousands of hydrants.

Firefighters dig out a hydrant in Chelsea on February 17.

“They go out and shovel hydrants in the morning, come back for lunch, and go out again in the afternoon,’’ MacDonald said, adding that Boston has added additional staff to help with the work that comes from thousands of buried hydrants.

And buried hydrants are not just a problem in Boston.

Firefighters in Revere are out shoveling hydrants every day, according to firefighter Nick Buonopane.

“I’d say we’re doing pretty well. Eighty to 100 percent are cleared out entirely,’’ Buonopane said.

Chelsea’s deputy chief, John Quatieri, said his department has been sending crews out in the morning and then again in the afternoon.

“In between shoveling hydrants, they’re answering calls,’’ Quatieri said.

A fire on Sunday in a Chelsea laundromat required the use of four hydrants, all of which had to be shoveled upon arrival.

“But that was a commerical building,’’ Quatieri said. “The concern is a fire in a residential building, that we can’t get to the hydrants quickly enough.’’

A Chelsea hydrant, smiling after being shoveled out.
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On Monday, a fire broke out in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. MacDonald said the first engine arriving on the scene found the hydrant in front of the building frozen, and firefighters had to “drag a hose several hundred feet to a hydrant down the street.’’

“Everything in our business is time sensitive,’’ he said.

Some cities and towns have launched programs where citizens can “adopt’’ or “sponsor’’ specific hydrants.

Earlier this month, Malden launched a hydrant adoption effort to clear its 1,166 hydrants. And Boston has its own “Adopt-a-Hydrant’’ effort, though MacDonald told Boston.com the city’s interactive map showing hydrant locations has had more of an impact, as it gives residents the option to help without providing personal information.

On Tuesday, the Boston Red Sox announced plans to give free tickets to anyone who shovels five city hydrants.

Chelsea doesn’t have a formal hydrant adoption program, but Quatieri welcomed the idea.

“It would be a huge help,’’ he said, adding that the department has gotten “a lot of cooperation from residents’’ already, both in shoveling and notifying them about buried hydrants.

“We’re experiencing an extremely high number of fires right now. That, added with the snow – it has made things really tough,’’ Quatieri said. “There’s just so much snow. I was ready for it to end a few weeks ago.’’

Buonopane said Revere doesn’t rely on residents, but that the department has had “a lot of help,’’ all of it appreciated.

“If you’re physically able, helping with hydrants is a huge plus,’’ Buonopane said.

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“There’s no reason if you’re shoveling the sidewalk in front of your house that you shouldn’t be able to shovel the hydrant,’’ MacDonald said. “Have a little personal responsibility. Be a good neighbor. Ultimately it’s going to benefit you.’’

Want to shovel a hydrant? Here’s how:

First, find a hydrant in need of shoveling.

There’s enough snow in Boston that determining whether you’re about to dig out a buried hydrant, or a buried Prius, is tricky.

If you live in Boston, you can view an interactive map showing hydrant locations throughout the city.

But in other cities and towns, finding a hydrant location can be tricky, even for firefighters.

Buonopane told Boston.com that Revere firefighters sometimes turn to Google Street View.

The fire hydrant locating system known as Google Street View.

“We tell people who want to help to use Google Street View. We even use it ourselves, if we have to,’’ Buonopane said.

Firefighters in Chelsea are also turning to Google when a hydrant’s exact location proves elusive, according to Quatieri.

Next, shovel out the hydrant, the right way.

MacDonald said anyone shoveling a hydrant needs to remember that the “business end’’ of a hydrant faces the street, not the sidewalk. In other words, shoveling out just the sidewalk side of a hydrant doesn’t cut it.

A shoveled hydrant, in Haverhill. —@michael_beaudry/Instagram

“Ideally, the rule of thumb is [to shovel] three feet completely around the hydrant,’’ MacDonald said. “You gotta remember the motion needed to turn on the hydrant is a wrench the firefighter spins 360 degrees. You need that clearance to make the circular motion.’’

Chelsea’s Quatieri agreed that a three foot radius is ideal.

“But we’d be happy just to see the hydrant right now,’’ he said.

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