Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Double feature Part II: Can I get a fire hose to use after a quake if my house is burning down and the fire department is not coming?

(Haven't posted in a while, so this month you get a double feature.)

I got this question at the end of one of my recent talks and said I’d look into it and post an answer.  The question went something like this:  “I was around in the 1989 quake and in parts of the city, it was impossible to find a firefighter or policeman.  There’s a fire hydrant across the street from my house.  Can I purchase and keep my own fire hose to hook up to that hydrant if my house is burning down and the fire department can’t make it due to other emergencies?”

Of course, after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the firefighters were busy dealing with too many emergencies, which is what gave rise to the SF Fire Department Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (SFFD NERT) program.  But regardless of the good reason, it’s certainly understandable to want to be self-sufficient in the absence of the firefighters.

I had never really thought about the fire hose issue, and on one level, it makes sense because the fire is there, the water is there, the person who wants to bring the water to the fire is there, and the Fire Department isn’t coming.  But on other levels, there could be concerns about legality, liability, safety, and feasibility.  So I checked with the SF Fire Department.

The official answer is: no.  The unofficial answer is: no.  The water that comes out of a fire hose is extremely pressurized.  In the SFFD, it takes two trained fire fighters to wield one of those things; we are not talking garden hose here.  If the average Joe or Josephine hooks up a hose to a hydrant and turns it on, they probably are not going to have much effect on the burning house, but could injure themselves and cause other damage.  And then if there’s nobody able to turn it off again, now you are losing the precious water from that local bank of hydrants.

I could add one suggestion, which is that if enough of us join the NERT program (or CERT programs in other cities) and take care of the smaller problems after an earthquake, then the firefighters will be available to save that house.

By the way though, did you know that in the City of San Francisco, there are 67 special low-pressure hydrants that actually dispense potable water that you can drink if the normal water supply is interrupted?  There is a map of these special hydrants at  Nice to know, although I’d still want to have my own emergency water.

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