Curbside Security

The first significantly new fire hydrant in more than a century could—and should—revolutionize the industry

Of all the accoutrements of civilization—and they are myriad, from plumbing to Pop- Tarts—perhaps none is more routinely taken for granted than the lowly fire hydrant. Like squat little sentries standing curbside in all seasons, they dot our neighborhoods and cityscapes almost as ubiquitously as stop signs, yet, except by firefighters and maybe dog walkers and their leashed lieges (who cannot seem to help expressing their feelings on the subject), hydrants mostly go unnoticed—until, of course, they’re needed.

When that happens and every second suddenly becomes the difference between life and death, the fire hydrant becomes the critical piece of equipment in the firefighter’s arsenal. Water brought to the scene of an emergency in a dump tank can make a huge difference, but without a fully functional hydrant on hand, firefighting can go only so far.

What even a quick Internet search of the phrase “faulty fire hydrant” reveals is that, far too often, firefighters arrive on the scene only to find malfunctioning or “dead” hydrants and then, while lives and property hang in the balance, they have to use precious time either finding a plug that does work or another alternative. It is a particularly stress-filled and ultimately costly scenario that some in the industry frustratedly refer to as “fire hydrant roulette.”

“It’s crucial when you pull up to a fire hydrant that it works, that it’s reliable, and when it’s not, you just go to the next one and the next and the next,” said former New York City firefighter George Sigelakis. “The public has a false sense of security regarding hydrants. We don’t talk about it, but from my experience, the chances are when you need a fire hydrant—when you need it the most—it doesn’t work.”

After an injury prompted his retirement from active duty in November 2000, Sigelakis set out to do what had not been done in more than a century: design and build a better fire hydrant. Working off ideas he formed early on as a firefighter and picking up patents along the way, he co-founded Sigelock Systems LLC in 2009 and soon thereafter introduced the Sigelock Spartan, which in May 2012 became the first—and, at this writing, still only—hydrant to achieve Underwriters Laboratories’ UL246B certification for a standard titled “Tamper-Resistant Features of Hydrants for Fire-Protection Service.”

Now, as Sigelock’s president and CEO, Sigelakis is on a mission to spread the word about his invention, which is designed not only to deter threats—both from those trying to remove water illegally and those trying to contaminate the water within—but also to conserve public resources by not allowing the water to leak out underground, which is an expensive problem with existing hydrants.

Active Spartan installations are in the ground as part of pilot programs in a smattering of cities, including Long Beach, N.Y., and, in its second year, Franklin, Pa., but Sigelakis has only just begun. His goal is rightly lofty: to improve the safety and security of cities everywhere. To do that, he has to get people to stop taking these things for granted.

Consider the Clam

Firefighters are forced to take part in the roulette routine for a number of reasons. Aged, weathered and corroded hydrant parts resulting in dysfunctional operating nuts, rusted caps and leaking seals are part of it, but so is vandalism, including not only the theft of water but of the hydrants’ brass and bronze parts. Damages caused by vehicular impact and a lack of maintenance in general are further exacerbations.

Maintenance of existing hydrants is a very necessary part of the current hydrant industry, and although it means big bucks for those who perform it, the system remains inadequate.

One of the starting places for the Spartan’s design was the use of non-corrosive, stainless steel materials requiring little to no maintenance. But what sets Sigelakis’s hydrant apart, even at first glance, are the security features built in to prevent unauthorized use. While they give the Spartan a space-age appearance, Sigelakis said the concept’s inspiration came straight from the earth.

“I grew up on a beach and was always fascinated by how the clam protects itself, how it locks inside itself so predators can’t pry it open,” he said. “So I devised a cap that would lock over the operating nut and also secure the outlets where the water comes out by locking inside the mechanism. Eventually, I encapsulated everything so there are no pry points—nothing is sticking out or protruding, so people can’t get hurt, but they also can’t attack the device.”

The resulting patented locking clamshell technology the Spartan sports proved impervious to the stringent attack tests that were part of its achieving UL246B certification. On the other hand, with the right opening mechanism, authorized personnel can unlock the Spartan and gain access to water in less than five seconds, which, according to Sigelakis, is about 25 seconds faster than with existing hydrants even under perfect conditions that rarely if ever exist.

Water the Odds?

The fire hydrant industry represents big business. No one knows how many individual hydrants exist because recordkeeping was spotty in the 1860s when the castiron versions made their debut. Even when records were kept, many were, ironically, lost in fires.

Sigelakis estimates there are at least 40 million hydrants in the United States alone, and maybe twice that. Whatever the number, it represents a lot of vested interest in maintaining the status quo by those entrenched in the industry.

Infrastructure improvements can move slowly, and Sigelakis has no delusions regarding the difficulties of revolutionizing the whole hydrant industry, but he is nevertheless certain that change is needed, and he has devoted himself to providing the means.

“Municipalities spend billions of dollars on firefighter apparatus, high-tech equipment, manpower and everything else, but the most important tool of all to fight a fire is the fire hydrant, and it’s also the most neglected,” he said. “What we have now with existing hydrants doesn’t work—not well enough. Mine does, and it’s needed. Its time has come.”

For more information about Sigelock Systems and the Spartan, visit www.sigelock.com.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Security Today.

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