ENGLEWOOD — Chicagoans are desperately looking for ways to cool off amid scorching temperatures and high humidity — but they should leave the fire hydrants alone, fire officials and a Southwest Side alderman said.
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said his office has fielded hundreds of calls about open fire hydrants since June 1, with 88 coming during Fourth of July weekend. What was once a minor annoyance has become a regular nuisance.
“We’ve got 20 different blocks where this is happening, and several people on those blocks are responsible for turning them on,” Lopez said. “It’s an ongoing daily event.
Open hydrants make it more difficult for firefighters to do their jobs, Chicago Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford said. There are more than 40,000 hydrants in the city, and if too many of them are on, the fire department will have a pressure problem on its hands, Langford said.
“This isn’t cute or funny anymore. It’s impacting the streets,” Lopez said.
Lopez said people from outside the neighborhood are coming into the 15th Ward and turn on hydrants while visiting. They leave them on, forcing the city’s Department of Water Management to come turn them off — only for the hydrants to be reopened hours later.
The alderman posted on Facebook he and his staff have tracked one person who turned on a hydrant in the 2400 block of West 47th Place.
Residents along Honore Street and Wolcott and Paulina avenues in Back of the Yards are some of the most affected. Frustrated by poor water pressure and the inability to flush their toilets, they are blowing the whistle on perpetrators, Lopez said.
Langford said open hydrants also create a safety issue for young children playing in the street.
“People often open the hydrants and then they use boards and tires to make a very tall spray, which makes a big curtain, and kids are playing in it,” Langford said.
“Even on a residential street where traffic is low, a car can come by and not be able to see the kids in the water. And the kids can’t hear the car if the driver blows the horn because hydrants are noisy. The motorist may drive slowly through and strike a child.”
Open hydrants also can cause property damage, Langford said. Cold water from a hydrant plus a hot windshield equals hundreds of dollars in repairs.
Langford said people have myriad ways for obtaining hydrant keys.
“Private contractors have these keys because they’re legally able to use the hydrants for the construction water with a city permit, so they’re out there,” Langford said.
“The city has spent money on high security taps that require special keys, but over the years people have figured out how to defeat those. It’s just like anything else; you come up with high-security methods, people will come up with a low-tech way of beating it.”
The lack of other options for heat relief remains an issue.
Public pools and beaches remain closed in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus. More than 100 park district splash pads are open throughout the city, but some have remained closed.
To prepare for the upcoming stretch of weather, the city is opening cooling centers, libraries and splash pads through the weekend.
Asiaha Butler, co-founder of the Residents Association of Greater Englewood, said she has mixed feelings.
While she agrees with Lopez on safety and infrastructure problems, she believes there is a way to find middle ground.
“What if we shut down the block for a couple hours and let them play for a little bit while being monitored? It’s not like they have alternatives,” Butler said. “That’s what made me complete the city’s Shared Street survey. There’s a way that it can be done safely that allows kids to cool off and have fun.”
In the meantime, Lopez is urging residents to report all open fire hydrants to their respective ward offices or 311. Residents of the 15th Ward can report them on Lopez’s website or call his office.
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