Every minute counts for firefighters called out to a blaze, and there’s always a hope that, when they hook a hose to a fire hydrant, there’s enough water to fight flames.
A newly minted Eagle Scout may have made it easier for the Morristown Fire Department to shave some time off of its responses, by letting people know how much water pressure is available from the town’s hydrants.
Morristown resident Jake Wilson was just awarded the Eagle Scout badge after his community project, in which he painted the tops of nearly 90 hydrants different colors, depending on how much flow can be expected from them.
“If the fire department were to pull up, they wouldn’t even have to test it. They could get right onto it and do what they need to do,” Wilson said. “It’s helping the community grow and better itself.”
Morristown Fire Chief Dennis DiGregorio and assistant chief Shawn Goodell — the two recently swapped positions — gave their blessings and their thanks to the project.
“It’s a good project, and he’s a good kid,” DiGregorio said.
Singing the blues
Wilson’s project involved hydrants in the village and its outskirts, areas served by Morrisville Water and Light. He got a list from the utility, which showed each hydrant’s location and statistics such as static pressure, nozzle size, flow pressure and actual flow, measured in gallons per minute.
The paint color on each bonnet — that’s what the dome-shaped tops of the hydrants are called — corresponds to the flow rate. Blue hydrants have the highest flow rate, followed by green and then orange. A black bonnet indicates that firefighters can expect little more than a trickle from their hoses, even though their flow rates may still be 200 to 400 gallons per minute.
If you’re driving around town and see mostly blue hydrants, that’s because you’re either in the village or because there are simply more blue hydrants, those with flow rates of at least 1,500 gallons per minute. Of the 85 hydrants that Wilson and his crew painted, 43 were painted blue.
That includes most of Main, Portland and Bridge streets, the main business and residential areas of the village, as well as all of Harrel Street.
The data shows that only 11 hydrants were painted orange, those with have the lowest flow rate. Most orange hydrants under 1,000 gallons per minute, less than a third of what the blue ones are expected to pump out.
The bulk of the orange ones, however, are clustered in two neighborhoods with fairly large populations.
The entire Pinewood Estates neighborhood, off Needles Eye Road, is served by four orange hydrants. And the area on Washington Highway that surrounds Copley Hospital is also served by four orange hydrants.
Kevin Newton, the plant superintendent for Morrisville Water and Light, said the utility is working to improve flow in some of the lower-pressure lines, but it can be pricy. And places like Washington Highway are at a higher elevation than anywhere in the village, which makes it tougher to maintain a good flow.
“It’s a major enterprise to change water lines,” Newton said.
Wilson had to paint only two hydrants black. Ironically, one of the two worst hydrants is listed on Best Street. The other is on Randolph Road, about 600 feet south of Washington Highway.
Wilson’s first step was to get an inventory of hydrants from the utility, and that’s when he noticed a discrepancy between expectation and reality.
Originally, he said, Goodell estimated there were 200 hydrants. But the list he got from the utility had fewer than half that.
So, he and his helpers — family and fellow Scouts of lower ranks — located as many extra ones as they could, and noted their locations.
Newton said the utility’s foreman has all of the hydrants accounted for, but not all of them needed to be painted.
Many of the non-painted ones are just “flushing hydrants” that trucks don’t hook up to. He said the modern pumps on fire trucks could really screw with the water system if they tried to pump out of one of those lower-flow hydrants.
Wilson gathered information on those into a chart similar to one made for the 85 he painted, and turned it over to the utility.
He also gave the utility his receipts for paint and supplies — $119.82 — so he can be reimbursed
He thinks a future Eagle Scout candidate could finish the remainder of the untested, unmarked hydrants. There’s plenty of work left — Wilson’s crew put in a total of 72 hours on his project, 28 of them himself.
On the job
As a Boy Scout earning merit badges, Wilson has done his share of hard work, from winter camping to physical fitness to emergency preparedness. Spending nearly 30 hours with paintbrushes bent over in the hot sun was no picnic.
“It was a lot of, ‘wax on, wax off,’” he said, channeling his inner Daniel-san. “Your back definitely hurt by the end of the day.”
Wilson said one obstacle was finding some of the harder-to-reach hydrants — even the ones on the list. Some of them needed to be weed-whacked, not just so he or his helpers could get to them, but so the finished project was actually useful for the firefighters.
This isn’t the first time Wilson has appeared in this newspaper for his Eagle project. Here’s an entry in from a September Morristown Police Department blotter: “Sept. 7 at 1:10 p.m., Wilkins Street residents thought the teenager spray-painting fire hydrants was up to no good. Turns out it was just a Boy Scout doing some community service.”
Wilson and his dad get a chuckle out of the incident, in which a woman in her house — he never saw her — called police on him. For one thing, he said, they were using paintbrushes, not aerosol cans. For another, it was broad daylight on a Saturday.
“Next thing I know, I see a cop pull up, no lights or anything, just casual,” he said.
Shortly after that, Goodell came over to explain the project. He’d heard the call over the scanner about a kid painting a hydrant, and had a pretty good idea who it was.
Wilson’s father, Brad, is a firefighter in a different town — and the road they live on has a pretty sizable population of firefighters for only being a mile long — so he knows the value of knowing what to expect when hooking up to a hydrant.
Brad is also the scoutmaster for Troop 876, the local Scouting group. He said that a lot of boys hit the Scout rank of Star or Life, the last two ranks before Eagle, and hit a lull. They’ve been in Scouts for years and other things start to grab their attention.
“That’s about the time when they discover girls, cars and jobs,” Brad said.
Plus, some merit badges require something of a more adult perspective, such as the personal management badge, which requires thoughts and plans about investing and finances, when most kids don’t get their first job until they’re well into their teens.
Is he proud of his son?
“Oh, wicked,” he said. “I couldn’t push him too hard because I’m his dad and his scoutmaster, so I had to let him get it done at his own pace.”
Jake understands that sentiment about life getting in the way of an Eagle Scout project. This summer, he realized it was only a couple of months before he turned 18 and aged out of Boy Scouts, and he still hadn’t figured out what he wanted to do for his project.
He said his dad and DiGregorio, who also lives part-time on their road, were talking about the importance of knowing where reliable sources of water were for fighting fires.
“It became a collective idea,” he said.
The idea of a collective is a key one in Scouting — you start off in dens in Cub Scouts and move onto tribes, and think about community service as you rank up.
Part of the Eagle project is to show leadership skills to the younger boys, which Jake did by bringing some fellow 876ers into the project.
Now that he’s 18, he plans on following in his dad’s footsteps as soon as he can, by joining the local rescue squad as he finishes his senior year at PA.
“I would say that if I didn’t do Scouts, everything I do would be completely different,” he said. “The way you’re brought up in Scouts, it keeps you held to a standard, and to feel the need to help people and even change the world for the better.”
Wilson’s summation of his project, with a lot of help from family and other Scouts, comes from another famous group, television’s The A-Team.
“I love it when a plan comes together,” he said.