Fire Hydrants and the Democratization of Infrastructure Maintenance

By Nick Carney • May 2, 2013

Move over, pet rocks. It’s time for pet fire hydrants to have their day in the sun.

Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has melded telecommunications technology, volunteerism, and infrastructure maintenance into an internet app called Adopt-A-Hydrant, launched in January of 2013. Developed by a Code for America fellow working for the City, the program allows city residents, businesses, or community groups to pledge to shovel out fire hydrants in the highly likely event of snowstorms.

For a city with more than 13,000 fire hydrants and notoriously snowy winters, any help in ensuring that more hydrants are shoveled is valuable. And given that the Boston Fire Department responded to 5,635 fires last year, ensuring that all hydrants are clear in the event of an emergency is a paramount concern.

But the app begs another question: is it time to start utilizing citizen volunteers to take care of fundamental city infrastructure? The Boston Fire Department isn’t ceding control of the hydrants or abdicating its responsibilities; the duty for clearing snow still remains with the BFD, but the Department saves time and money and benefits from the increased likelihood that hydrants will be accessible in the event of an emergency. Thus the city avoids the thorny issue of private ownership of public assets while simultaneously harnessing the labor of motivated individuals.

For a clue as to the greater significance of the Adopt-A-Hydrant program, we need to turn to the adopt-a-highway programs first instituted in the 1980s. In these programs, sponsoring groups either maintain a particular stretch of highway themselves, providing the labor necessary to clean a particular strip of highway, or pay the fees necessary to hire contractors to clean the roads. But the Adopt-A-Hydrant program takes this concept to its logical extreme.

Is using technology to promote active public involvement in infrastructure the new normal?

The app represents the realization of the full potential of these earlier efforts, truly democratizing the volunteering process. With such programs it is ever easier for individuals, irrespective of background, to directly participate in maintaining their city’s public infrastructure.

The civic engagement benefits for residents are clear enough, as are the efficiencies gained by the Fire Department, and indeed Chicago, Honolulu, and Buenos Aires are already moving to adapt the app to their own needs.

The real question lies in whether this model will become all the more prevalent in the age of strained budgets and ever-expanding digital connections. Is using technology to promote active public involvement in infrastructure the new normal?

While we wait for that question to be answered, however, go out and adopt yourself a fire hydrant. There are still plenty out there looking for a loving home.

About the Author

Nick Carney

Nick Carney is a Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Public Service Fellow. He is concentrating in Social and Urban Policy and has previously worked in clean energy policy and mixed-use, urban real estate development. Nick is particularly fascinated by transportation, land-use, and education policy, and with his sister runs a literacy nonprofit called Breaking the Chain.