Not just a pretty face

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - Ques­tion about the D.C. area? Write an­swer­man@wash­ For pre­vi­ous col­umns, go to wash­ing­ton­ John Kelly’s Washington

There are rea­sons for the color pal­ette of Ar­ling­ton County’s fire hy­drants, An­swer Man learns. One is even chromed.

I drive on Lee High­way through Ar­ling­ton ev­ery day and only re­cently no­ticed that all the fire hy­drants are yel­low with pale blue tops. What gives? This doesn’t strike me as a par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able color scheme, not like a bright red hy­drant against green grass. — Claire Wil­liams,


This may seem like a tangent, but bear with An­swer Man here: You wake up, groggy, and find your­self sprawled on a side­walk with a dull ache in your tem­ples and no me­mory of the last few hours. Ob­vi­ously, you were drugged, bun­dled into a sedan, driven around town and then dumped un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously by the side of the road. (That’s the last time you’ll ever go to back-toschool night.) Where the blazes are you? Then you re­al­ize you are next to a fire hy­drant. Hav­ing read An­swer Man, you are able to as­cer­tain your where­abouts. You know that in Fairfax County, fire hy­drants have a sil­ver bar­rel and a red top, or bon­net. In Alexan­dria, they have a yel­low bar­rel and white bon­net and out­let caps. The District has green fire hy­drants. In Prince Ge­orge’s and Mont­gomery coun­ties, they are gray with green bon­nets.

You fo­cus your eyes and ex­am­ine the hy­drant. It is yel­low with a pale blue top. “Aha!” you say, “I am in Ar­ling­ton County.”

You would also be in Ar­ling­ton County if the hy­drant had a green top, or­ange top or red top. That is be­cause in the 1990s, the county adopted the hy­drant col­or­ing sys­tem rec­om­mended by the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. The bon­net col­ors rep­re­sent the flow of water at that hy­drant: Blue is above 1,500 gal­lons per minute; green is be­tween 1,000 and 1,500 gpm; or­ange is 500 to 1,000 gpm; and red is be­low 500 gpm.

“We have for­mu­las we use for fig­ur­ing out how much water is needed to ex­tin­guish a fire,” said Capt. Gregg Karl of the Ar­ling­ton County Fire De­part­ment. If the flow is low, for ex­am­ple, sev­eral hy­drants may need to be used, with a re­lay set up.

But does any of that mat­ter if the fire­fight­ers can’t find the near­est hy­drant? That is not a prob­lem.

“All of your drivers know where the hy­drants are,” Karl said. “It’s a re­quire­ment of the job. You learn the water sys­tem when you be­come a driver. Part of the test to get off pro­ba­tion is a test of your ter­ri­tory. You have to know your streets, your first due, your sec­ond due, your third due.”

First due are lo­ca­tions where your crew is ex­pected to be the first re­spon­der. Sec­ond and third dues are where you will come later, if needed.

When Karl was be­gin­ning his ca­reer, his cap­tain used to take the rook­ies out on week­ends to

touch ev­ery sin­gle fire hy­drant in their ter­ri­tory.

“I can tell you where they all are around Claren­don,” Karl said.

Good drivers do some­thing else, too: They com­pile hand­drawn map books that note the lo­ca­tions of hy­drants, along with any quirks of ad­dress-num­ber­ing, one-way streets and ob­struc­tions that might block a fire truck. When a hy­drant tem­po­rar­ily goes out of ser­vice, they note that, too. When the alarm sounds and the rest of the crew is get­ting dressed, the driver con­sults the map book.

“I still have mine from when I was a rookie 13 years ago,” Karl said. “It was passed down to me.”

Ken Wil­lette of the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion was a fire­fighter and fire chief in Mas­sachusetts for 30 years. He said that even when he was off duty, he couldn’t help scan­ning the streets for fire hy­drants. “That gets em­bed­ded,” he said. “Be­lieve it or not, that is some­thing that stays in your mind for many, many years.”

Tech­nol­ogy is help­ing. For the past year, the Washington Sub­ur­ban San­i­tary Com­mis­sion, which main­tains hy­drants in Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s, has been test­ing a com­puter pro­gram called HyLo. It al­lows fire­fight­ers to punch an ad­dress into a lap­top and pull up a map de­tail­ing the clos­est hy­drants. It will also work on iPads and iPhones.

Some other color notes: Hy­drants on pri­vate prop­erty are gen­er­ally painted red. Also, on a re­cent drive down Lee High­way, An­swer Man no­ticed many hy­drants that were en­tirely yel­low. Karl said those are new or re­place­ment hy­drants whose flow has yet to be mea­sured. The bon­nets will be painted later.

Fi­nally, of the 3,548 fire hy­drants in Ar­ling­ton, one is ex­tra spe­cial: It’s at the Air Force Me­mo­rial. Be­cause the de­sign­ers of the swoop­ing, me­tal­lic me­mo­rial thought a yel­low/blue hy­drant would clash, they had it chromed.


This fire hy­drant is in Ar­ling­ton County, where the bar­rels are yel­low and the bon­net color in­di­cates the hy­drant’s water flow.

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