Firefighters without access to hydrants get creative in Kane County

Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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Kelly Callaghan said there are times local firefighters must put out fires without access to a hydrant. Facing that challenge, they sometimes have to be creative when it comes to finding a water supply.

Callaghan, chief of the Elburn & Countryside Fire Protection District, said fire hydrants are absent in about 75 percent of the district’s coverage area. In those instances, creeks and ponds often become the department’s source of water to fight fires.

When it comes to extinguishing fires without access to a hydrant, fire departments are faced with challenges. Departments have thorough processes to ensure they have enough water to adequately snuff out a fire as efficiently as possible.

Alan Isberg, fire marshal with the Elburn & Countryside Fire Protection District, said the fire district in recent years has been ramping up efforts to increase locations where firefighters can access rural water supplies, such as creeks and man-made ponds.

Since 2005, the district started making agreements with residents and businesses that allow firefighters to access a pond or pool of water on their property. Many of the sites have a draft fire hydrant – also known as a dry fire hydrant – that firefighters can hook up to when they’re not near a regular hydrant. A draft hydrant allows firefighters to siphon water directly from a pond or other body of water.

Isberg said the need to create more rural water supplies became “much more apparent” after a Kaneville barn fire in 2005 that killed 33 horses. With no fire hydrants nearby, firefighters hauled more than 100,000 gallons of water from rural water supplies to put out the fire. Despite those efforts, the horses perished and the barn could not be salvaged.

The district now has about a dozen such agreements with those who have water supplies on their property, cutting down the time it takes to run between the water supply site and the location of the fire. The district has more than 60 access points to other sites that aren’t on private property.

“To connect to a fire hydrant is very quick,” Isberg said. “To set up a foldable tank, dump water into it, lay the lines out and draw water out takes time. Our guys practice a lot of that, but it still takes time.”

Some rural water sources are available only certain times of the year. A creek, for instance, isn’t much use in winter or when there’s a drought. An iced-over pond creates the extra step of having to drill through the ice. Fog, a dirt road or a winding 3,330-foot driveway also can slow the process of getting water to a rural fire.

Fire hydrants in cities such as St. Charles are hooked to the city’s water system. John Lamb, environmental services manager for St. Charles, said the city has about 220 miles of water main with about 12,000 hydrant connections. In rural areas where there is no centralized water system, a third-party utility company is responsible for maintaining fire hydrants. That’s the case for the Whitmore Place subdivision in St. Charles Township, but a developer usually has to initiate that partnership.

“If a developer doesn’t get a private organization in there to plug into sewer and water, they just don’t have it,” said Ron Johnson, St. Charles Township highway commissioner.

Kenneth Anderson, manager of Kane County’s subdivision and special projects division, said instances in which a private organization maintains fire hydrants are rare.

Greg Benson, fire chief for the Fox River & Countryside Fire and Rescue District, said about 85 percent of the district’s coverage area has no fire hydrant access.

“In a lot of rural areas, the fact that they don’t have water can be a significant challenge,” he said. “It requires a different deployment and that’s really the biggest thing. It’s not better; it’s not worse – it’s just different.”

The Fox River & Countryside Fire and Rescue District and the Elburn & Countryside Fire Protection District rely on maps of rural water access points to find water.

Isberg said having more rural water access points not only enhances public safety but also brings homeowner insurance rates down. He said he hopes to continue to work with developers, businesses and other property owners to install man-made ponds or allow the fire department access to existing ponds. He said the district created an action plan a few years ago to work with those parties, and if that plan was fully implemented, homeowners could see significant insurance savings.

By insurance standards, which require a hydrant within 1.5 miles of a house, Isberg said the district is close to having 90 percent coverage.

“It has taken eight-plus years to get to this point,” he said. “Our goal is to get up to 95 percent [coverage]. We’ve asked the public, builders and developers to help us out.”