Every second counts: Fire departments rely on neighbors to help dig out fire hydrants

(Valley News Live) - When there's a fire, every second spent fighting it is crucial. That's why many cities depend on Good Samaritans to dig out fire hydrants ahead of time.

We asked cities, big and small: with so many of the hydrants still buried in the snow—whose job should it be to dig them out?

As the once light, fluffy snow turns hard and icy, how long does it take to dig out a fire hydrant in times of emergency?

In Abercrombie, N.D., the volunteer fire department posted a video showing firefighters digging a hydrant out—it took them one minute and 19 seconds.

"The longest time we had one, to locate it and clean it out, and a path back through took us over five minutes," Abercrombie volunteer firefighter, Allen Berg, said.

But Berg says when watching a building burn in front of you—every second counts. And with a population of some 250 people, small cities like Abercrombie rely on neighbors to help dig fire hydrants out.

"It just wouldn't pay for our city to hire somebody to do it," Berg said.

But in larger cities like West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead, should there be a crew hired by the city to dig them out?

"Currently with the snow that we have, our public works, our plow drivers are completely swamped, just maintaining our streets which they're doing a great job of, keeping the streets clear,” Tim Binfet, assistant chief of the Fargo fire department, said. “And then with all the responses, there's been building collapses lately and fires, so we're busy doing that."

Binfet says there are more than 7,000 fire hydrants in Fargo alone.

"If we had all of our crews, which is 9 crews out, for eight hours a day, Monday through Sunday, it would take about 33 days to get each hydrant dug out,” he said. “So if you combine that with snow events that continue, it would take all winter and we would never get ahead of the snow."

He says it helped tremendously when a neighbor grabbed a shovel, as crews arrived at a garage fire on 10th Street early Thursday morning.

"Which saved us minutes,” Binfet said. “Just as our truck was getting ready to run out of fire from the firefight, we were able to connect with the hydrant and resupply with water."

That's why even large cities say it's crucial for able neighbors to help dig fire hydrants out. West Fargo, which has more than 2,000 hydrants, encourages folks to "adopt" a fire hydrant.

"You just get to know that you are truly helping, making a big difference for a potential emergency," West Fargo Fire captain, Jason Carriveau, said.

Carriveau says all you need to do to adopt a fire hydrant is to find one and clear it out. The best part? There’s no annual fees to join.
The West Fargo fire department even has a contest, where neighbors can send in 'before and after" pictures, clearing out their nearby fire hydrants. The fire department is handing out tumblers as a reward.

We asked the City of West Fargo what it would take to delegate crews to clearing up the fire hydrants. This was their response:

The City of West Fargo currently has 2,000 fire hydrants throughout the city and it takes about 30 minutes per hydrant to clear them. This means, after every storm, we would need to designate 1,000 hours to clear the hydrants.

As you can see, it would be cost- and time-prohibitive to rely exclusively on the Public Works or Fire Departments to clear the hydrants. We are thankful to have a community willing to help when possible to ensure the hydrants are clear and ready for emergencies.

As previously discussed, the fire departments also respond to emergencies with water tanks during this season to ensure that they can respond quickly to a fire if a hydrant isn’t cleared.