Fire chief blasts drivers who park in front of hydrants
City of North Vancouver Fire Chief Dan Pistilli has been a firefighter for nearly three decades. And if there’s one thing that gets him worked up, he says, it’s drivers who park their vehicles in front of fire hydrants, putting both fire crews and the people they’re trying to save at risk.
“They’re thinking ‘Oh, I’m only going to be there for five minutes, 10 minutes,’” Pistilli says. “Well that doesn’t work for us. We can’t pre-plan an emergency.”
According to Pistilli, it’s a problem seems to be getting worse with densification and existing parking at a premium. The City of North Vancouver says it issued 409 tickets and 65 warnings to fire hydrant parkers in 2017. In Vancouver, bylaw officers wrote 3,380 tickets last year. And in Surrey, the number was 4,500.
The law is clear: B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act states that no vehicle may stop, or park within five metres of a fire hydrant.
“Do you think people know the rules and just choose not follow them?” I ask Pistilli.
“Some do, and believe it or not, some do not,” he says.
To test out the chief’s theory, we cross the Lions Gate Bridge, and head to one trouble spot on Vancouver’s West Side, steps away from the upscale shopping strip in Kerrisdale on West 41st Avenue.
The city tells us that it’s received more complaints about this particular fire hydrant than any other. We find a silver Mercedes SUV parked directly in front, blocking access. In a few minutes, the driver and her three passengers return.
“Do you know about the rules?” I ask her.
She shakes her head, and looks confused. I pull out my translator app to help explain she could get ticketed.
“[Firefighters] can’t get here because you’re in the way,” I say.
“Yeah, I know,” she answers. “Sorry.”
Minutes later a Vancouver bylaw officer shows up, looking to write a $60 ticket. He tells us this happens all the time, all over the city. We learn bylaw officers have options when deciding to write a ticket or order a tow.
In the City of Vancouver, 2.5 to 3 metres away from the hydrant seems to be the magic number to escape unscathed, though more than one bylaw officer across Metro Vancouver warned: it’s up to an individual officer's discretion and some don’t give any leeway.
Back in North Vancouver, we spot a heating and plumbing van driver unloading gear at a hydrant on East 4th Street.
“I’ve warned the building, this is the only way I can get up,” he says.
That doesn’t sit well with Chief Pistilli, who says these mid-block fire hydrants one or two blocks off Lonsdale Avenue are a particular problem: “They’re just rushed, and they’ll park, and they’ll run out of their car.”
Pistilli mentions that East 2nd Avenue used to have a marijuana shop next to the hydrant, which he says adopted the illegal spot as its own. Hydrant access got so bad, Pistilli says, he pushed the city to install permanent plastic bollards to keep the spot clear.
“I think it’s irresponsible,” Vancouver driver Jenna Machala says, when we ask her about drivers who block fire hydrants.
Fellow driver Ayden Yeung doesn’t mince words, calling drivers “stupid” and “inconsiderate,” adding it seems like “common sense.”
To get a better understanding of why fire crews need clear hydrant access, Chief Pistilli sends a truck and a crew of four to a hydrant near the waterfront.
They hook up the supply line, which can carry anywhere from 80 to 160 pounds of pressure, from the hydrant to the truck. Even the smallest kink in the hose can mean not enough water reaching the truck, they tell us, which means even less reaching the firefighters on the front lines of the blaze.
And if someone is parked in front?
“You can’t go up and over a car. You can’t go under a car.” Pistilli explains. “Maybe going around the vehicle, connecting to a different fire hydrant? That all takes time. Every second counts.”
Which helps explain why firefighters in places like Boston, Nebraska, and California have used a technique that seems straight out of the movie “Backdraft”: smashing a vehicle’s front windows and threading the hose straight through.
“Would you do it if you had to?” I ask Pistilli.
“Yeah, we would,” he says, adding that it would only be done as a last resort.
Instead, Pistilli has tried to educate drivers about a safety issue he calls his “pet peeve.” He’s printed up laminated cards which his crews leave on the windows of offending vehicles, warning of a ticket, tow or worse.
Back in Vancouver, the popular illegal parking spot in Kerrisdale doesn’t stay free for long. A woman in a white Volkswagen SUV gets out, prompting a a neighbour down the street to shout at her. She doesn’t seem to hear. So we approach.
“Over there,” I point out the hydrant, now hiding behind her vehicle. She walks over, glances at it, then looks at me.
“You can’t park in front of the fire hydrant...” I start explaining.
“Oh, oh, oh, I’m sorry,” she says, before she climbs in, and drives off.