San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fires to Get a Dousing

Fighting fires will soon become easier, thanks to a bill passed this week that aims to fix an alarming shortage of working fire hydrants.

Lawmakers voted to make fire hydrants a “public good,” to be installed and maintained by water providers.

Hydrants have been abandoned for decades because no one is legally responsible for them. Costa Rica needs 10,000 fire hydrants, but it has only 5,000 and half of them function poorly, said Héctor Chaves, director of the Firefighters Corps.

“It’s almost a national emergency,” said National Liberation Party (PLN) lawmaker Fernando Sánchez. “We are sending (firefighters) into a war without weapons.”

Under the new bill, public and private water providers will pay for the hydrants by charging their clients a small tax, fixed by the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP).

Fires destroy some 1,100 houses every year, often for lack of water, Chaves said. Two trucks, each with about 1,000 gallons of water, usually respond to a fire alarm. But because it takes 1,000 gallons a minute to fight a fire, crews can run out of water after just two minutes, said Jorge Marrero, who directs the corps in the central Pacific and southern zones.

Firefighters then turn to hydrants or rivers, or they call for another fire truck.

Often, the closest hydrant is several blocks away and has little or no water.

A working fire hydrant can spew an average of 400 gallons per minute for up to two hours, Marrero said.

The hydrant shortage especially hurts poor people, whose wood houses tend to be more vulnerable to fires, Sánchez said.

On April 23, firefighters contained a fire in Desamparados, south of San José, but they needed 1,000 more gallons to finish the job.

The three closest fire hydrants had no water, said Ronny Luna, a local corps director. By the time firefighters doused the blaze with water from a nearby river, seven houses had been destroyed.

The National Insurance Institute (INS), which funds the Firefighters Corps, used to install and maintain fire hydrants, said Alvaro Escalante, who was corps director in the 1980s. But INS could not afford to keep pace with the growing population density.

Dozens of firefighters drove cranes and trucks to the doors of the Legislative Assembly Monday, and they sounded sirens periodically for hours as lawmakers debated.

The bill will become law once it is passed in a second vote and signed by the president.


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