Both private and public fire hydrants play an important role in fire management in urban areas. However, the roles they take on may vary according to location, specifications, and ownership. Here are some of the major differences between privately – and publicly – owned hydrants and how they came to be so different.
Development of Hydrant Ownership
When fire hydrants first became commonly used, each hydrant was privately owned. Most of the original hydrants were created or purchased by home or business owners. These hydrants were supplied by limited sources, such as personal tanks or cisterns.
Eventually, as cities and townships created bucket brigades and fire departments, municipalities began to front the cost of installing new hydrants. Many owners of private hydrants were asked to allow fire departments use of them or sell them to the city.
But private hydrants didn’t disappear. In fact, many private hydrants are used today. Private hydrants owned by proper management companies or retail business owners can help fill in the gaps in the city fire prevention and protection plan.
Issues with Privately-owned Hydrants
In theory, private hydrants are a great safety measure for business owners, tenants, and public officials. Before comprehensive, local fire departments were formed—which in some cases did not occur until the mid-1970s—private hydrants gave residents peace of mind about fire safety in their immediate area.
However, some have called for elimination of private hydrants due to the following issues:
- Dysfunction: Because the city or municipality is not responsible for maintaining private hydrants, there have been many instances of firefighters attempting to use a nearby hydrant only to find it dysfunctional.
In British Columbia, the fire code requires private owners to inspect and perform hydrant maintenance at least once a year. Inspection reports must be turned in to the city. But even this legal precaution can’t eliminate the danger that, when a firefighting team needs access to a hydrant they’ll stumble across one that doesn’t work and waste precious time.
- Lack of Access: Originally, private hydrants gave business and property owners security, partially because they could readily access the hydrant in the case of a fire-related emergency to protect their premises. But the tools necessary to tap into modern hydrants aren’t easily accessible.
Fire codes also now require a use permit before you tap into a hydrant. These codes are necessary to prevent unsanctioned use, by preventing use of the standpipes and hydrant by anyone who is not an employee of the Township.
While these laws are logical and can prevent some infractions, the change in access may also endanger residents during emergencies.
- Location: Many developing cities have run into problems with hydrant placement. Often the hydrants are too far apart to provide adequate protection from fire, but they may also block new construction sites or business parking built more recently.
Relocating a fire hydrant can cost several thousand dollars. Hydrant location can be an issue with either private or public owned devices. However, relocating a privately-owned hydrant must be approved and overseen by the owner, which can create legal issues.
Because of these issues, some believe that having only hydrants that are backed, inspected, and maintained by the government or district would be preferable to having both public and private hydrants.
Division between Public and Private Hydrants
Though hydrant owners originally had to grant access to the town, city, or municipality, currently all hydrants are accessible to official firefighting teams. In fact, despite multiple legal distinctions in fire prevention and protection codes, public and private hydrants are rarely separated otherwise.
For example, homeowners may need to know the location of the fire hydrant nearest them for insurance or personal safety purposes. They can fax in a request or call the local district staff. The information given will not contain anything about the hydrant’s owner. The homeowner will only be apprised of the following information:
- If their property is within reasonable range of a fire hydrant.
- If their property is within the jurisdiction of a fire hall (8 kilometres).
In cases like this, no distinction is made between a hydrant owned by the city and one owned by a business. This may paint a false picture as to the availability and condition of the hydrants in the area.
Fire hydrants are an important part of modern fire prevention and control, especially in highly populated urban areas. Both public and private hydrants contribute to this important task. If you have questions about how the hydrants in your area are maintained, refer to your local fire codes.