Painting a picture of safety
by RICK NORTON Associate Editor
Jul 21, 2014 | 1173 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

CLEVELAND UTILITIES has re-launched a program that will paint, using a color-coding system, some 2,600 fire hydrants in its service territory over the next three years. The program was put on hold a few years ago due to budget considerations, but is now being returned. An ongoing maintenance initiative to assure fire hydrant operability has continued to be in effect.
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Fire hydrant beauty is rarely among the top sales pitches used in Chamber of Commerce marketing to lure new industries, services and families to a community, but Cleveland Utilities takes it seriously nonetheless.

It’s not as much about aesthetics as it is assuring that one of the community’s principal tools in firefighting is reliable and that it portrays an image of reliability.

That’s why the local public utility — which is responsible for fire hydrant maintenance, among a swell of other duties — re-launched a painting program in mid-May that will continue into the summer of 2017. By then, a two-man crew will have grinded off old paint, applied a coat of new two-toned polish and fully checked for operability among a fleet of 2,600 fire hydrants.

“We’ve been diligent in maintaining the fire hydrants [for operational performance], but we’ve also worked to maintain their appearance,” said Ken Webb, CU president and CEO who joined Water Division Vice President Craig T. Mullinax in delivering the project update during a recent gathering of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities.

Mullinax agreed, but then painted an even more vivid picture by pointing out the connection between healthy-looking fire hydrants and sustained consistency in operation — the kind of consistency on which a firemen will hang his hat.

“It is our goal to have all our fire hydrants looking good,” Mullinax said. “We believe all hydrants should not only look good, but operate properly. We make sure all hydrants are operating properly.”

CU took a serious look at its fire hydrants 10 years ago and launched a maintenance program that not only assured their functionality, but gave them a new shine as well.

Mullinax pointed out many area residents might not even notice that fire hydrants in Cleveland are two-toned. The bottom portion, which includes the nozzles, is called the “barrel” and is painted orange. The top part, called the “bonnet,” is painted either of five colors.

“They are painted either red, yellow, green, blue or black,” Mullinax explained.

It’s not about artistic interpretation. It’s about a color-coded system that identifies flow rate of gallons per minute.

“For instance, a red-topped hydrant is capable of delivering a flow rate of 1,000 to 1,499 gallons per minute,” Mullinax said. “A black-topped hydrant is zero flow rate which means it is out of service.”

Most firefighters, and their departments, might look at Cleveland Utilities as a paint-by-number genius; but, the truth is the color-coded hydrants are required by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“It [color coding] is also very helpful to local fire departments for when they have to fight a fire,” Mullinax said.

It’s simple math.

A big fire might require the maximum amount of flow rate per gallons. When the hydrants are color coded, it makes decision-making just a little easier for firefighters. One such decision is whether to call for backup water tankers or to seek alternate sources of water.

CU’s original project one decade ago to refurbish all its fire hydrants within the water distribution system was completed on time and within budget. Subsequently, a regular maintenance program followed. The repainting commitment continued through 2008 or 2009, but was ended then because of the economic slowdown; in other words, a tight budget forced CU to make some decisions of its--- own.

“But [at that time] the hydrants were all painted and color-coded,” Mullinax said. “They were where we needed them to be.”

Over the next few years, the fire hydrants were maintained for operability, but their prettiness was allowed to fade.

On May 12, CU reinstated the painting program and by June 19 some 276 had already been refurbished. The project is being funded in the Fiscal Year 2014 and 2015 budgets.

The plan is to repaint 900 fire hydrants per year until project completion in mid-2017.

“The program is ongoing,” Mullinax said. “We make sure all fire hydrants are operating properly. We have a fire hydrant serviceman dedicated to all maintenance.”

The painting — which consists of grinding off the flakes of old and reapplying the coat of new — is being handled by a two-man team.

It’s a simple plan.

“If it [fire hydrant] looks good, it conveys that it will operate well,” Mullinax said. But it’s not all about the paint. It’s about sustained maintenance for operation and a cooperative partnership with area firefighters to confirm their reliability.

“They [firemen] don’t maintain the fire hydrants, but they do go out and check the flow,” Mullinax said. Inoperable hydrants, or malfunctioning ones, are reported immediately to CU which dispatches a repair crew.

Some might see fire hydrant maintenance and TDEC-inspired color-coding as a lighthearted affair, but it’s serious business — especially to the family watching from their front yard as heroic firefighters labor to save their American Dream.

“When Ken [Webb] and I go into other communities, we’re always looking at the fire hydrants,” Mullinax acknowledged. “Sometimes you go into these communities and you see [hydrants] that are rusted, and you wonder do they even work properly?”

He added, “Ours are maintained ... and they look really good.”