As the heat index soars into triple digits, you can find New Yorkers out on the sidewalk, enjoying sprays of cool water or splashing in curbside puddles. Often, that refreshing water flows from a fire hydrant just a few feet away.
Using fire hydrants as a cooling method goes back decades and has become a staple in vintage photos of the city. While you may no longer see as many open hydrants as in the Lower East Side of the last century, the practice remains a summer tradition citywide.
Though it is technically illegal to open any of the city’s 170,000 fire hydrants by yourself, there is a way to enjoy the cooling jets legally. You can put in a request to the Fire Department to open a hydrant. If it’s approved, a member of the fire department will come to fit the hydrant with a spray cap and return that same day to close it up.
To request a spray cap fitting, go to your local firehouse and fill out a short form. You can find your nearest firehouse on the 311 Firehouses page. You must be over 18 years old and bring your ID with you.
The FDNY told THE CITY it has distributed more than 1,400 spray caps so far this year.
Jakkeline Arocho, vice president of D.E.C.M. Block Association in Bushwick, said that her group goes through this official request process when organizing their annual block party.
“You go down a week in advance,” Arocho said. “The fire department opens it up at 11 a.m. and then comes back at around 5 p.m. to shut it off.”
(Note: If you have a business that plans to use a hydrant’s water, you have to get a separate hydrant permit and pay for the water in advance. You can find instructions on that here.)
The FDNY encourages people to go through the official request process because attempting to open a hydrant yourself can be dangerous. The safety cap is used to adjust the water pressure, and opening a hydrant without it poses a risk to those in the firing line. Without a safety cap, water can flow out at a very fast rate and even has the power to knock over small children.
In addition, opening a hydrant without the proper equipment means it’s more likely to waste water. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, illegally opening fire hydrants can spray up to 1,000 gallons of water a minute, which is enough to fill up a swimming pool in 20 minutes. With a spray cap attached, this number is reduced to just 20 to 35 gallons per minute.
Spray caps also make it easier for the FDNY to restore the hydrant for emergency use, since hydrants without spray caps can lower water pressure and reduce the flow of water to hoses and pumps, according to the DEP.
Of course, there are also personal consequences to tampering with a hydrant. Opening a fire hydrant illegally can result in fines of up to $1,000 or 30 days imprisonment, or both.
Despite these laws, it is well known that over the years people have learned how to open them up themselves, passing tips on to their neighbors. Arocho said she remembers trying to open hydrants herself.
“I’m not gonna lie, I’ve done it,” she laughed. “As you go along you learn it from the kids.”
Jessica Saab, who lives in the Bushwick area, said that open fire hydrants are an important part of a block party. She recalled at this year’s block party on DeKalb Avenue, which Saab helped organize, children filled up water balloons at the hydrant and people splashed in the water during the heat of the day.
“That’s why I love block parties,” Saab said.