By Dave Russell
At a minimum of 500 pounds and usually painted red, fire hydrants ought to be easy to keep up with. Not necessarily.
Jackson County Emergency Management set out last year to find and map them all, including some that homeowners had hidden behind bushes, built a fence around or removed completely. A few fake fire hydrants have popped up, too.
Chyan Gallardo, a former intern with the department, has taken a position to work on a mapping project that will soon have location and other information literally in the hands of emergency personnel via a cellphone app.
It has been a year-long process.
“I first had to meet with all the fire departments,” Gallardo said. “I started up in Cashiers and I had to get their list of all their hydrants and their numbers and the latitude and longitude. I went to every hydrant, some new hydrants and some that were not there.”
She noted the closest address, what was surrounding them, the longitude and latitude and their numbers. Gallardo entered the information into a database that officials hope will guide fire department personnel directly to functioning, easy-to-find fire hydrants across Jackson County.
“I’ve pretty much done that with all the fire departments now,” she said. “We found quite a few that they thought were there, that they had used in the past that were no longer there.”
Some were victims of car wrecks, she said.
Others were hidden by homeowners.
“A lot of people will surround hydrants with bushes because they don’t like them in front of their house,” Gallardo said. “That makes it very hard for the fire department to find them. They’ll let grass grow up just around one area so you can’t see them. Some plant flowerbeds around the hydrant area and completely cover them up.”
State law allows fire departments to take measures to make hydrants visible.
“By code, you’re supposed to have a 3-foot buffer all the way around the hydrant, a clear distance, and you’re not supposed to park a vehicle within 15 feet of a hydrant,” Jackson County fire Marshal Michael Forbis said. “We’ve not gotten to that point yet, but the goal is for the fire departments to take that on. Like Sylva, for example, they are going to go out and try to cut around the hydrants and weed-eat and maintain those.”
Education would be a key component instead of writing tickets, Forbis said.
“You want them to be easily distinguishable from what’s around them,” he said. “You just don’t want them to be camouflaged.”
One hydrant in Sylva had a fence around it that would have required emergency personnel to tear down, he said.
“We have found people who have fake fire hydrants at the end of their driveway because insurance companies will give you a lower rating if you are within 1,000 feet of a hydrant,” he said. “That’s one of the questions they (insurers) always ask when they call the Fire Marshal’s Office.”
The end goal of the project allows for all available information – closest address and/or cross street, latitude and longitude, a general description and any other details the fire departments might want or need.
“The possibilities are endless in terms of what information we can include,” Gallardo said.
Gallardo numbered the hydrants, and many of the departments want to use her numbering system, she said. She wrapped up the final hydrant inspection on Monday afternoon.
The app that will make the information available with a few taps on the phone screen is Active 911. The county has used it for years, Forbis said.
“When dispatch receives a call and sets the tones off, it sends everything to your phone,” he said. “You can open up that app and it will give you driving directions and pull up a map for you. With what Chyan has been working on, it’s kind of the next step to give everybody the most information possible. We’re constantly trying to do things in the county to decrease response times and make everything available to emergency services that we can.”
Other information includes a “pre-plan” for properties, noting how many stories it is, where the entrances, hydrants and utilities are located.
The effort came about due to local fire departments’ never-ending quest for higher ratings.
“The fire departments go through a rating process,” Forbis said. “They’re inspected by the N.C. Department of Insurance and the office of the state fire marshal to get a new rating which in turn, lowers homeowners’ insurance rates.”
Location of – and knowledge of – fire hydrants figures into that equation.
“There were new housing developments in areas with new fire hydrants and new infrastructure, hydrants that were missing, hydrants that were misnumbered,” Forbis said. “That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just collectively across the county that because of all the changes, things kind of get lost in the shuffle.”