With temperatures locked in the 90s, children in Tampa's sweltering inner city have resorted to an age-old remedy: opening fire hydrants. But twice during the past four weeks, their carefree mischief has turned to violence when police trying to shut off the hydrants were pelted with rocks and bottles, and passing motorists were dragged from their cars and beaten.
Tampa officials downplay the problem, saying these are isolated incidents.
Other major cities have found ways to combat their problems with hydrant tampering.
Open hydrants trouble these cities for several reasons: Low water pressure can thwart firefighting efforts, and wasted water depletes low reservoirs and tight budgets. And when city workers move in to cap the gushing water, residents sometimes assault them.
The solution, these cities have discovered, are a handful of devices that can be attached to the hydrant. Sledgehammers and hacksaws are useless against the devices, which can be removed only with specially designed wrenches.
Chicago officials decided to protect the city's hydrants in 1987, when they became worried about low water pressure and property damage caused by leaking hydrants.
In 1982, Los Angeles city workers were injured when they tried to cap Watts-area hydrants that had been opened during a 100-degree heat wave.
Both cities turned to Hydra-Shield Manufacturing, Inc., an Irving, Texas, company that patented a hydrant cap 10 years ago.
The cap, which resembles the rounded tip of a bullet and costs from $70 to $95, fits over the hydrant's opening. Each fire-engine company carries a wrench designed specifically to remove the cap.
"It's been very successful," said Mark Durham, a spokesman for Chicago's Water Department.
Hydra-Shield, which sells about $3-million worth of the devices each year, also has a patented $200 cap that fits over the nut on top of the hydrant. It can be removed only with a magnetic wrench, company president Henry Stehling said.
This device is even more impervious to vandalism than the older cap that fits over the hydrant's nozzle, Stehling said.
New York uses the caps, but it also loans out special perforated caps that emit a shower of water for children to play in.
"We don't think a kid who opens a hydrant is doing anything worse then being a kid on a hot day," said Sanford Evans, assistant commissioner of public affairs for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
The perforated caps, made by prison inmates in Elmira, N.Y., are loaned out to adults, he said. Nearly 2,000 caps are available across the city, which has nearly 100,000 hydrants.
The logic of the program is that water use is reduced by 40 percent, vandalism is checked, and children can still have fun, Evans said.
Tampa Water Department officials know about these anti-tampering devices for the city's 8,600 hydrants.
Their use "has been investigated, but it's not a major problem," said Gil Manter, distribution manager for the department.