Tevin Johnson sat in front of an open fire hydrant at East Biddle and Homewood streets yesterday, a spray of pressurized water cascading over his back and down onto the kids around him.
Neighborhood children, as young as 2 and as old as 13, bounded through the torrent in flip-flops and bare feet, laughing, splashing and cooling off in the afternoon heat.
And defying city officials, who an hour earlier spoke about the dangers of illegally opening hydrants to cool off. Not only could the stream of water topple a small child and push him into traffic, the officials said, opening hydrants can lower water pressure for homes and for firefighters trying to put out a fire.
"This is everybody's responsibility," said Connie A. Brown, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks. "You protect children from themselves by reporting it." He urged children to restrict their water-play to city pools, which are to open Saturday.
Public works officials said an open hydrant releases 1,000 gallons of water per minute. To illustrate the danger, a city worker stood a 3-foot-high dummy in front of a hydrant at North Bond and East Baltimore streets. The gushing stream shoved the dummy across two lanes, and, in a second demonstration, wedged it beneath a parked car.
Frank Snyder, the deputy chief of operations for the Fire Department, said illegally opened hydrants can also jeopardize firefighters, who rely on a consistently high-pressure water supply to control blazes. Anyone caught illegally opening a hydrant could face a $500 fine or up to six months in jail.
It is a recurring problem and occurs in sync with the rise in temperatures during the summer. This year, the Department of Public Works reported a high of 234 illegal openings on May 31.
Public works officials said that, thanks to hydrant locks, the daily average of illegal openings has dropped significantly.
Public Works began installing the locks in 1998 to reduce the number of illegal openings. About 2,000 hydrant lock have been installed in the city. Locks have appeared on hydrants that were opened frequently in the summer, and near hospitals, schools and high-rise buildings, where a sudden drop in pressure can cripple water supplies.
George L. Winfield, director of the Department of Public Works, said an additional 50 to 75 locks will be installed this summer in areas with repeated illegal openings.
As recently as five years ago, the city sanctioned occasional hydrant openings by distributing sprinkler tops to adults who requested them for their blocks. The city discontinued the program in 2002 after deciding it tacitly endorsed inappropriate hydrant use and put children at risk by encouraging them to play in the street.
"It was better than illegal openings, but unfortunately it was still way too dangerous," said Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works.
The warnings didn't reach the children on Biddle Street. Tevin, 13, confirmed that the locks have stymied at least a few unauthorized openings. "People are trying to get it off, but they can't do it," he said.
At other places, though, children still use pliers to open the hydrants, drawing little attention from passing police or fire officials. "They just tell us to turn the water pressure down sometimes," Tevin said.
Neighborhood resident Randy Bacote, 40, stopped by the opened hydrant to take pictures and said that on a corner once heavily trafficked by drug dealers, playing in the hydrant's spray is relatively harmless.
"They don't have anything else to do. I'd rather see them doing this," he said. "I'm thinking about putting something on myself and coming down."