Open hydrants can't stay that way

June 18, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

Around noon on West Lanvale and North Arlington streets in Baltimore yesterday, bare-chested boys and bathing suit-clad girls danced playfully around a hardy spray of water from a hydrant that wet the street for blocks.

A few miles away, Melvin Bomar and Charles Adcock, water inspectors with the city Department of Public Works, were gathering their wrenches and a page-long list of complaints, to begin a 15-hour day of hunting for open hydrants.

Within minutes, the workers met the players -- and that's when the shrieks of laughter turned to pouts, hands on hips, and protests.

As the hydrant was closed, the children at Lanvale and Arlington looked horrified. They stopped their play abruptly and looked with disgust at the workers. Some seemed ready to cry.

With this week's record heat -- coming before public pools have opened -- the scene was repeated all over Baltimore, as children flocked to hydrants for relief.

Almost as quickly, public works crews flocked to the open hydrants in two-person teams to close them. The reason is not as mean-spirited as the children may think.

Hazards of open hydrants include property damage, dangerous driving conditions, possible injury to children, and low water pressure, especially at hospitals and high-rise buildings, said public works spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt. Open hydrants also waste clean drinking water and inhibit firefighters from doing their jobs, she said.

Complaints about open hydrants came from all over the city this week. The public works department received calls to close 250 hydrants on Thursday, and the problem was so severe that Mr. Bomar and Mr. Adcock worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. -- while seven more teams were added, Mr. Bomar said.

But safety was not on the mind of many Baltimore children yesterday afternoon.

When they saw the city workers, some yelled with dread, "Oh my God!" About a dozen children playing near a West Baltimore hydrant began a chant: "Don't turn it off! Don't turn it off!"

Some parents were equally chagrined.

"Come on now, it's hot!" said Alexandra Brown, who opened a hydrant in West Baltimore so her children and nephews could cool off. "Oh well ya'll," she told her kids when the flow of water was halted, "I guess you all will be dehydrated again."

Within seconds, Mr. Bomar waded through the protesters, who included children washing their hair in the spray or riding Big Wheels in the river the water created. With a giant wrench, he closed water-spewing hydrants -- in less than a minute each.

In an average day during the summer, he and Mr. Adcock might close 35 hydrants, Mr. Bomar said.

In general, says Mr. Adcock, "It's a pretty good job." However, "there are sticks and bottles [thrown] sometimes," he said, adding that police respond if things get out of hand.

"Basically," said Mr. Bomar, "we try to talk to [the people playing at the hydrants]. If they're going to get rowdy, we get back."

At each stop yesterday, they offered an alternative: a city program providing free sprinklers that can be attached to hydrants.

Tonya Snell, 13, playing in the 1000 block of N. Mount St., was not impressed.

"Man, those sprinklers [are] phoney. They ain't no fun," she said, adding that the force of the water that comes from them is no stronger than a rainfall.

Timothy Hunter, who wanted a sprinkler for his West Baltimore neighborhood, said, "I called that number and [it] said you had to take a class in order to use the sprinkler. And by the same token, it's 101 degrees!"

Ms. Pyatt said the hour-long course, given three times a week, shows a video and teaches adults how to safely install a sprinkler. It also alerts them to other rules: The sprinklers can be operated only between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., and adults must block off the area.

As the city workers left some neighborhoods yesterday, some children threatened to reopen the hydrants.

And sure enough, by about 2 p.m. the hydrant at West Lanvale and North Arlington streets was again gushing water and refreshment.

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