Come along with The Verge for the second season of Detours. We’ve traveled across the country to find the people, groups, and companies that are solving America’s problems in new and unconventional ways.
New York City, with its dense population and endless skyscrapers, is notoriously difficult to fight fires in. Firefighters depend on nearly 100,000 hydrants to do their work, but many of these hydrants are in disrepair. Vulnerable to misuse and exposed to extreme weather, the city’s hydrants are decayed, leaking, and corroding.
“There are so many defected hydrants,” says Vincent Dunn, a retired Deputy Chief of New York City Fire Department. “In the ’70s it was so prevalent that we developed a radio signal — 1070. It meant the first arriving engine didn’t have water because of a defective hydrant. Other fire trucks would stretch out hoses and assist the first pumper with water.” But when a fire is blazing, every second spent stretching hoses is a second that could be used to save lives.
George Sigelakis, a retired New York City firefighter, understood the need for a hydrant redesign early on in his career. “A hydrant is a lifeline to a firefighter,” he says. “You can have manpower and millions of dollars worth of trucks and equipment, but without water out of a hydrant, you can’t do anything.”
Conventional hydrants are made up of steel, iron, and rubber parts. “In an environment with water, all three of those things don’t hold up over time,” says Sigelakis. Some hydrants are cracked open and tampered with by residents looking to gain respite from the heat, or water to wash their cars. As a result, hydrants are caught in an endless cycle of maintenance. Repainting and repairing costs are in the millions of dollars. “Its a great business for manufacturers who make these hydrants,” Sigelakis says. “They keep selling parts. But, lives are at stake.”
"Without water out of a hydrant, you can't do anything."
Sigelakis decided to reinvent the hydrant, and started conceptualizing a new model in his basement. He deconstructed the traditional hydrant, analyzed it, and developed the next generation of hydrant design: the Sigelock Spartan. Virtually indestructible, the Spartan is made of stainless steel and ductile iron, and covered in a powder coating that makes the design non-corrosive even in the face of storms and salty water. An efficient internal drainage system prevents the damage that freezing water can inflict. The hydrant can be opened within seconds—but only with a special wrench, discouraging tampering. The Spartan is manufactured in Pennsylvania and comes with a fifty year warranty.
Despite its benefits, Spartan adoption is slow. “Municipalities have stockpiled parts for years,” says Joseph Kelly, the Senior Operations Officer at Sigelock Spartan. “When we approach them about this new technology, they understand the issues because they work on this everyday. But, they also have a lot of money invested in replacement parts.”
There are currently 150 Spartans across a dozen states including Florida and Massachusetts. In New York, installation has so far been restricted to Long Island. “Typically, municipalities buy one or two and put it through its paces for a four-season cycle,” says Kelly. As the Spartan proves itself to be the future of hydrants, Kelly expects sales to improve. “It’s not an overnight process. But, we’re making inroads.”