Firefighters are some of the most selfless public servants you will ever encounter - Dennis Leary
Most of us take it for granted that when firefighters turn up to a blaze, that they have some sort of sixth sense that can guide them straight to the nearest fire hydrant.
But it isn’t some secret form of intuition that makes it possible for them to divine and locate a hydrant, it’s instilled in them by their rigorous training, which makes the ability to find, and use a fire hydrant second nature for any firefighter.
How do they do it? How do firefighters know what to look for, and what each type of hydrant does? It isn’t straightforward or simple, but when you know the signs to look for, and what they mean you’ll know where to look for a hydrant, and what you’re looking for.
And we’re going to guide you through the easiest ways to locate a fire hydrant in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and here at home in the United States.
The thing is, it isn’t just different countries that use different markers and signs to highlight the location of hydrants for their respective fire services, different states and cities do too, which is why the internet can often be your best friend when you need to find a hydrant.
Before we plunge headlong into showing you how to find a fire hydrant though, it’s important to know, and understand what a fire hydrant is, and what it does. After all, if you don’t know what a fire hydrant does, and what it is, knowing how, and where to find one is immaterial.
Fire Hydrant 101
What is a fire hydrant? Basically, it’s an access point that allows firefighters to connect to and use the public water supply to bring fires under control and extinguish them.
They’re part of a universal system that allows fire departments from all over the globe to do their jobs simply, and effectively without having to be solely dependent on the water supply that fire engines carry.
The best way to think of a hydrant is as a more powerful and potent way to combat a fire than its smaller, alternative cousin, the commonplace extinguisher.
While a fire extinguisher can be used by anybody to fight a small fire, hydrants are only meant to be used by trained professionals who understand how, and when to use them
Having first appeared at the tail end of the eighteenth century, it wasn’t until 1801 when Frederick Graff the chief engineer of the then Philadelphia Water Works invented and patented the above-ground fire hydrant, that it was drafted into popular usage and remains, in America at least, the standardized form of hydrant.
And old colleague always used to call hydrants ‘the big yellow faucet’, and when we’d get a call, as soon as we were on scene, he always used to shout “Pick up the slack and hook up the facet”, and that’s exactly what firefighters do whey turn up.
They connect their hoses to the “big yellow faucet” and put themselves in harm’s way to save lives and minimize damage. We always like the way he referred to a faucet and it’s stuck with us ever since we first heard him say it.
How Does A Fire Hydrant Work?
The first thing you need to know about any hydrant is that it can only be used by firefighters.
To prevent the general public from using, and accessing them and the local water supply being drained unnecessarily by improper usage of a hydrant, the valves that control the supply of water can only be opened with the right tools.
And the only people who have the tools that are needed to open the valves on a hydrant, are the local fire department.
While they’re a practical and essential part of the public safety system, there is an issue that all firefighters are aware of when they connect a hose to and use a hydrant, and that’s pressure.
As water flows out of a hydrant at a minimum of fifty pounds per square inch, and there is no discernable way to control that pressure on the hydrant itself, before they can and do connect a hose to a hydrant, most fire departments use an intermediary valve connector, which allows a firefighter to control the pressure of the water flowing through a hose from the hydrant.
Apart from granting a firefighter an unprecedented amount of control over the water supply as it “charges” (or fills) a hose, a valve connecting can also help to prevent the pressure of the water flowing from the hydrant from stripping the connecter on the hose, which in turn can help to prevent leaks and ensure that every drop of water that leaves the hydrant is directed toward the fire.
Any firefighter who uses a hose and hydrant combination is expected to wear safety equipment to protect from the water pressure which can be incredibly dangerous and turn the nozzle of a hose into a lethal weapon.
That’s the reason why, without fail, you’ll always see firefighters wearing heavy-duty work gloves and face masks when they’re directing a hose at a fire.
It’s also important to note that every hydrant is always regularly inspected to make sure that they’re fit for purpose.
Any sign of corrosion or rust can lead to a hydrant being isolated from the mains supply and sealed to prevent its usage as it ends up being more dangerous than useful, as the potential damage to the hydrant can cause them to rupture, fail, and in the worst-case scenario explode if they’re used.
Identifying a Fire Hydrant - What Do They Look Like?
That’s a tough question to answer, hydrants can do and look different depending on what their specific function is and their country of origin.
Most American hydrants are now yellow, which immediately makes them stand out on the street and increases the likelihood that a firefighter will be able to instantly identify them.
But that doesn’t mean that every hydrant is yellow, as there’s any color code system that identifies hydrants and the flow rate (measured in gallons per minute) that they’re designed to pump out.
Red - Also known as a Class C hydrant, they have a flow rate slightly under five hundred gallons per minute.
Orange - A Class B hydrant, it’ll pump out anywhere between five hundred and one thousand gallons per minute of water.
Green - The Class A hydrant ups the game on its Orange rival and if designed to pump one thousand to fifteen hundred gallons of water per minute
Light Blue - The granddaddy of public hydrants, the AA “blue faucet” has a flow rate of more than fifteen hundred gallons of water, and should only be used when the emergency in question needs something a little extra special to deal with it.
Remember when we mentioned the regular inspection schedule? Any hydrant that’s been deemed unsafe for usage will have been capped with a black seal, which allows firefighters to identify that it should not be used under any circumstances.
Outside Of The USA - What Do Fire Hydrants Look Like?
Things get a little more complicated when you venture outside of the US.
Our neighbors in the North, Canada, use a completely different color scheme for their hydrants that not only identifies flow rates but also highlights any specific issues that a hydrant might be plagued by, which gives the firefighters an additional edge and makes sure that they’re completely prepared for any problems that they might encounter.
The EU (European Union) mainly uses a standardized system of underground hydrants that are identified by the grid that covers them. Rather than use color, they use code and abbreviations that specify the flow rate of the hydrant being used.
Meanwhile, in Japan, which also uses a large underground system of hydrants, they’re mainly covered with garish and often outlandishly colored grids that not only let the firefighters know what the flow rate of the hydrant is but also add decoration to the city streets they’re part of.
In Eastern Europe, as well as following the lead of their Western counterparts, the fire services also use hydrants that are mounted on the side of buildings which can and does increase the efficiency with which they’re able to deal with any emergency situation.
The variations in hydrants mean that firefighting training, which follows a lot of the same basics, is also vastly different depending on the country, and area that a firefighter was trained in.
How To Find Your Nearest Fire Hydrant
As you’ve probably gathered, identifying a fire hydrant isn’t a walk in the park, and depending on where you are in the world, or even in the United States, spotting a hydrant is sometimes a lot more difficult than civilians assume it is.
And while it’s easy enough for firefighters in their home areas to identify the nearest makers and signs that point them in the right direction, if they’re dropped into unfamiliar territory, how are they supposed to know where to look for a fire hydrant?
As we mentioned earlier, the internet and Goggle can be a firefighter’s best friend if they’re unfamiliar with the local signage but isn’t always foolproof, and can end up leading you into a maze that’s been fashioned by local terminology and an assumption that you’re familiar with regional geography.
However, most firefighters will be familiar with a sure-fire and classic sign that there is a hydrant nearby, and that’s a lack of parked cars. In almost every country in the world, it’s illegal to park in front of and restrict access to a fire hydrant, and while the fear of a ticket isn’t enough to deter most drivers from parking wherever they want to, the threat of their car being towed if they do park in front of a hydrant is usually more than enough to dissuade them from doing do.
Let's break this down by the countries that we mentioned earlier and list some of the ways that you can easily identify hydrant markers and signage if you’re in America, Australia, the UK, or Germany.
The US has a number of easily identifiable ways to locate the position of the nearest fire hydrant to your location.
Blue Reflectors - The simplest way to ascertain if there is a hydrant nearby, is by looking at the pavement and street. If there is a hydrant in close proximity, the street will have blue reflectors embedded in it.
While they’re more difficult to spot during the day, at night these reflectors are a simple way for any attending fire crew to immediately identify how close they are to a hydrant.
Building Signage - If you don’t want to look down, you could always look up, as most buildings that are close to a hydrant will have some sort of sign indicating where the hydrant is in relation to it.
Net Databases - Again, Google can be your best friend, especially if you know how to use, and are familiar with Google Earth, which can show you the way to the nearest hydrant. There’s also a number of internet databases dedicated to identifying the location of the hundreds of thousands of fire hydrants that litter America.
If we’re honest, we’re more a little skeptical of how reliable they are and how up to date the information that they use, but if we were forced to choose one to rely on, we’d pick Hazard Hub because of its user-friendly interface, and no-nonsense approach to hydrant location.
When you do locate your nearest hydrant, it isn’t as easy as just cracking it open and attaching a hse as any dedicated and long-serving firefighter will happily tell you. Some hydrants also use a color indication system to identify what they can be used for.
Yellow - If the hydrant has a yellow stripe on it, it means that it’s a private access and system hydrant, and cracking it open in anything less than the direct of emergencies can lead to all sorts of unwanted and unexpected legal issues.
White - It’s a public access hydrant and is fine to use it in any and all emergencies.
Purple - It’s usually a sign that rather than drawing its supply from the public mains, this hydrant pulls water from either a lake, a river, or a reservoir.
Red - You were probably told by one of your relatives when you were young that red means danger, and in case, it really does. This hydrant should only be used for specific emergencies, and it’s up to the firefighters to discover what those circumstances are.
The United Kingdom
Like the majority of the countries in the EU, even though it is no longer a member of that governing body, all of the UK’s hydrants are located underground, but can easily be accessed by lifting the grid that covers them, and then attaching a hose and opening the valve that controls the supply of water.
It’s simple and straightforward to find your nearest hydrant in the UK, as their locations are all marked on lamposts. Simply look for a sign on any lamp post that has a yellow ‘H’ and that means that there’s a hydrant nearby as that ‘H’ means, you guessed it, hydrant.
The ‘H’ will have a number above it and one below it, the top one indicating the gauge of the connecting valve in the hydrant, and the bottom is an indicator of the distance to the hydrant.
While the distance maker used to be confusing as it wouldn’t specify whether that distance was in feet and inches or meters and centimeters, as the UK adopted the latter at the beginning of the nineteen seventies, it’s safe to assume that the distance will be in meters and centimeters.
Never ones to mince words and overcomplicate anything when it comes to locating hydrants, the Australians believe in keeping things as simple as possible, have three different systems, and even use a spring ballcock system on their hydrants which means that they can be safely and discreetly hidden underground.
Triangular Markers - The Australians use a system of triangle markers painted on their roads to indicate the direction of the nearest hydrant and where it is located in relation to where the firefighter is standing on the street.
Cat’s Eyes - Cat’s Eyes are a system of road-based reflective markers that are designed to make it easy for drivers to see where they’re going at night and locate the central meridian of the road. If there’s a hydrant nearby, the cat’s eyes on the road will be blue.
Marker Plates - Australia also uses a system of marker plates that denote the source of water, the distance, and which side of the road the hydrant is located on, It’s a simple, easy to read system that has started to become the norm in the country and is gradually beginning to replace the other two marker systems.
The principal nation in the EU, Germany has located all of its hydrants underground and uses a system of marker plates not unlike the one used by Australia to show firefighters where the nearest hydrant is located.
All of the plates are surrounded by a red border and indicate the source of water supply, and the distance to the hydrant, which is measured in centimeters and meters.
The Final Word On Hydrant Location
While it’s always advantageous to know where your nearest hydrant is located and how easy it is to find it, unless you’re a trained firefighter under no circumstances you should ever be tempted to even try and use a hydrant.
And even though they’re different all over the world, all hydrants serve the same purpose, to enable firefighters to efficiently, and quickly do their jobs to the best of their ability.
That said, maybe you’ll now have a much clearer picture of the complexities involved in the life of a firefighter and how demanding and exacting the job can be in the most arduous of circumstances.
And if you do want to use a hydrant to help put out a fire there’s a simple way to do it. Become a firefighter.