It's 90 degrees and children are running through the streets in their swimsuits, bathing in the cool water gushing from a nearby open fire hydrant and splashing their bare feet in puddles along the curb.
This seemingly innocent summer scene occurs frequently in Baltimore neighborhoods. But opening the hydrants is a dangerous practice that can lead to injuries and hamper firefighters trying to battle a blaze, according to city officials.
Jets of water streaming from hydrants under high pressure can knock small children into the paths of cars. The hydrants are often damaged by the people who open them. And open hydrants cause water pressure problems in underground pipes, the city officials say.
"Our equipment is engineered to work under certain pressures," said Capt. Hector Torres of the city Fire Department.
"Our master stream devices push out 1,000 gallons of water per minute. Open hydrants can lower that to 500 gallons per minute. In order for our equipment to work properly, we have to have good water supply and good pressure," Captain Torres said.
The city allows people to open hydrants, but only with a permit that comes with special equipment for use of the hydrants. A person who opens a hydrant without a permit is subject to up to six months of imprisonment, a $500 fine or both, under state law.
But the threat of jail and fines seems not to have deterred people seeking to cool off on a hot day, and neither have the tamper-proof tops the city installed on many hydrants.
Captain Torres conceded that the tamper-proof tops have not been very effective. On a very hot day, as many as 100 fire hydrants may be open across the city.
Often, the hydrants are damaged when people use standard pipe wrenches and hammers to open them, making it difficult for firefighters to use the hydrants when an emergency arises.
The city's Public Works Department maintains 55,000 to 60,000 hydrants in the city and Baltimore County.
During the current heat wave, the Public Works Department has received an average of 100 calls per day for illegally opened hydrants. Work crews have been working overtime trying to keep up with the flood of calls and to shut down the open hydrants, said George G. Balog, the public works director.
Herman Williams Jr., the city fire chief, said many hydrants are opened by youngsters who are unaware that their actions are dangerous and illegal.
"With the water shooting out at 60 and sometimes up to 80 pounds of pressure, they run the risk of endangering themselves, oncoming cars and their neighborhood," Chief Williams said.
"We need water to put out fires," Chief Williams said, adding: "If too many hydrants are open in one area, there's a real possibility there could be a problem. You wouldn't have enough pressure coming out of there to water a garden."
Closing the hydrants improperly can also cause pressure buildups in underground pipes. This can damage the pipes and force public works officials to shut down water service to make repairs.
Chief Williams urged the use of special sprinkler systems that attach to the hydrants. These sprinklers release water more slowly, which keeps the water pressure underground from dropping and eliminates the risk of injury to children from a powerful jet of water. They can be obtained at Mayor's Stations ** when city residents apply for permits to open hydrants. The permit holder also gets a special wrench that will not damage the hydrants.