Fire hydrant law prompts debate over enforcement

An ordinance that would crack down on fire hydrant theft triggered a frustrated outburst today by aldermen saying the city lacks the manpower to enforce laws already on the books.

The ordinance, introduced by Alderman Bob Fioretti [D-2], would impose a fine ranging from $500 to $1,000 and a potential jail term of up to 10 days for people who remove, possess, sell or recycle parts from fire hydrants. A second offense would subject violators to a fine of $500 and a possible prison term of up to 30 days.

Under the ordinance, owners of junk and recycling facilities could have their license suspended by the commissioner of the environment if they possess or deal in parts from fire hydrants. Subsequent violations would prompt the revocation of the license.

Fioretti says that maintaining working fire hydrants is a matter of life and death.

"Firemen have told me it can take up to 10 minutes to find a working fire hydrant when hydrants are missing their parts," says Fioretti. "A few seconds can be the difference in saving lives of the firemen and the people they're trying to save."

Items like brass nozzles and bronze stem nuts from the hydrants are popular targets for thieves who go after the expensive metals.

Last year brass rings were removed from 2,500 fire hydrants, according to the water management department.

Larry Merritt, spokesman for the Department of Environment, says that the new ordinance will make it easier to punish and close down junk dealers who trade in the illicit parts.

"Before we had to prove they were stolen, but now if there's a fire hydrant or parts, it will be presumed to be stolen," says Merritt.

The police and fire committee unanimously agreed to pass the ordinance on to the full City Council for a vote on Wednesday, though some alderman expressed concerns.

"We create a lot of laws that we don't have enough enforcers to enforce," says Alderman Carry Austin [D-34]. "We keep creating laws that don't have any bite in them. Do they even have enough inspectors to go to all of these junkyards?"

"I can tell you right now we don't have the manpower to inspect these things," says Alderman Isaac "Ike" Carothers [D-29], chair of the police and fire committee.

The budget doesn't give city departments the manpower they need, says Carothers.

Alderman Freddrenna Lyle [D-6] seconded Austin's complaint.

"I share the idea that we create ordinances and law that we don't enforce, even with regard to health and safety issues," says Lyle.

But she said she's equally frustrated with the systematic theft of metal items from her community.

 "The same companies that take these copper rings take the downspouts from the neighborhoods in my ward. They take the wire baskets that we put on corners," says Lyle. "They even take the guard rails from off of the expressways."

Lyle added that she was tired of buying downspouts to replace the hundreds that were missing from her ward's neighborhoods.

Alderman Manny Flores [D-1] says it's time the city consider hiring engineers that will make the hydrants more tamper-proof.

"You're talking about a lot of money that we're losing here," says Flores. "This money could be spent on other projects."

Tommie Talley, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Operations and Distribution in the Department of Water Management, says that the department is looking into improving the mechanics and design of hydrants in order to make them more secure and tamper-proof.

According to Talley, the department received over 22,000 complaints about problems with fire hydrants in 2006 and over 27,000 complaints in 2007. These problems ranged widely but included leaks, frozen hydrants, and missing parts.

Inspectors from the Department of the Environment inspect city junk and recycling facilities anywhere from four times to 12 times per year, according to Merritt.